Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi on October 22 appears to have been a success.
Their talks were scheduled to last two hours, but went on for five hours, an unmistakable sign that matters of mutual importance were discussed on a deep level and that the two leaders established a personal rapport.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the discussions took place in an atmosphere of warmth. Bennett called them “excellent,” while his office described them as “warm and positive.” Bennett’s advisor and interpreter, Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a native Russian speaker, labelled them “among the warmest and most intimate” in years.
Such was the apparent upbeat mood that Putin invited Bennett and his wife to visit St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, at a later date.
The timing of their discussions coincided with the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia after a long and bitter break.
Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, was one of the first countries to recognize Israel after its birth in 1948. But the Soviet Union severed formal ties with Israel in 1954 and again during the 1967 Six Day War. From that point onward, Moscow was openly hostile to Israel and cultivated close political and military relations with frontline Arab states at war with Israel.
Soviet military advisors assisted Egypt and Syria, Israel’s prime enemies, during the War of Attrition from 1968 to 1970 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. During this extraordinarily volatile period, Israel and the Soviet Union were on the brink of war, with Israeli and Soviet aircraft clashing in dog fights over the Sinai Peninsula.
With the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev as secretary-general of the ruling Communist Party, the Soviet Union softened its stance toward Israel. In October 1991, two months before the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of Russia, Moscow reopened official relations with Israel. Shortly afterward, Aleksandr Bovin took up his post in Tel Aviv as Russia’s first ambassador to Israel in 24 years.
Putin, who assumed his current position following the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, briefly referred to these events during his talks with Bennett.
“It is possible to say that your visit marks the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations,” he said in his opening remarks. “During this time, relations between Russia and Israel, almost unique to a certain degree, have formed.”
In a reference to Moscow’s approval of the 1947 United Nations Palestine partition plan and its subsequent recognition of Israel in 1948, Putin said that “our country” has “essentially stood at the origins of the creation of the state of Israel.”
Putin, who has twice visited Israel, has dwelled on this topic before. Discussing Israel’s substantial Russian Jewish population, Putin, in 2011, declared, “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. It’s apparent that more than half of the population speaks Russian.”
Claiming that Israel could be regarded to be within Russia’s cultural sphere of influence, Putin said he viewed Israeli citizens of Russian descent as his compatriots and part of the “Russian world.”
Acknowledging Israel’s bond with its Russian partner, Bennett said, “Russia is a very important player in our region, a kind of neighbor to the north. As such, our relationship with Russia is strategic, but also on an almost daily basis, and we need to maintain this direct and intimate discourse.”
Praising Putin as “a true friend of the Jewish people,” Bennett said he hoped to “strengthen” Israel’s economic, technological, scientific and cultural ties with Russia.
According to Elkin, the chief theme of Bennett’s discussions with Putin was continuity. Significantly enough, Putin agreed. “I truly hope … your government will pursue a policy of continuity on Russian-Israel relations,” he said.
In this connection, Putin hailed the “quite business-like and trusting relations” he created with Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who conferred with the Russian leader on a regular basis and boasted that his personal relationship with him had averted a clash between Israeli and Russian forces in Syria.
At the beginning of his meeting with Bennett, Putin said that “many problematic issues” would be discussed.
The first one concerned the situation in Syria, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East and one of Israel’s arch enemies.
Since 2011, Syria has been locked in a civil war, during which about 400,000 combatants and civilians have been killed and most of its major cities have been badly damaged.
In 2015, Russia bolstered its military contingent in Syria by a considerable degree, sending in combat jets and special forces in a bid to turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. The strategy has largely worked. The Syrian army, backed by Russian air power, has regained much of the territory that rebels captured.
Two of Israel’s deadliest foes, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have also helped Syria militarily. And herein lies an immense problem for Russia. Iran, a Russian ally which often threatens to destroy Israel, has set up a network of bases throughout Syria, including the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Iran’s ominous military entrenchment in Syria is motivated by a desire to establish a credible ground front against Israel. In the meantime, Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, has been transporting Iranian arms to its bases in Lebanon by way of Syria.
In the past few years, Israel has launched hundreds of air attacks in Syria targeting Iranian bases, Hezbollah convoys and Syrian military posts and anti-aircraft batteries. However, Israel has not bombed Russian facilities in Syria.
Shortly after the Russians greatly reinforced their garrison in Syria, Israel and Russia announced the formation of a de-confliction hotline to avoid unintended clashes in Syrian territory. It has generally proven to be successful, but in 2018 Syria accidentally shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane during an Israeli raid, leading to the deaths of 15 servicemen on board.
Blaming Israel for the incident, Russia installed S-300 air defence batteries in Syria, thereby curtailing Israeli air operations. Nonetheless, the Israeli Air Force continues to launch raids in Syria. In addition to enhancing Syria’s air defence capabilities, Russia has occasionally condemned Israeli strikes in Syria.
Russia has equipped its own forces with the S-400 system, a more advanced version of the S-300, but has never used them against Israeli aircraft.
In the wake of Putin’s meeting with Bennett, Elkin said that the de-confliction mechanism in Syria would remain in place. Russia will tolerate Israeli air raids aimed at Iranian installations in Syria, but has asked Israel for advance warnings of imminent strikes. Whether Israel honors this request is debatable.
Putin and Bennett also discussed Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel vehemently opposes and has threatened to bomb.
Russia supports the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which froze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Russia favors renewing the landmark accord following the withdrawal of the United States from it three years ago. Israel has lambasted it.
Clearly, Israel and Russia differ on two key issues, but both sides are keenly interested in preserving their cordial bilateral relations.