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Israel’s strategic importance in the new Cold War

With Russia isolated in the international arena and challenged in the Eastern Mediterranean, a militarily strong Israel is well-placed to back the Western alliance

The severe military, political and economic crisis in Ukraine, which at this stage mainly involves the United States and the whole of Europe, but in practice is already a global crisis (China may soon join as another major player), presents Israel with serious challenges but at the same time raises new opportunities.

At this point, it seems that the military fate of the campaign will be decided soon, despite the stern resistance of the Ukrainian people. Russian President Vladimir Putin will see the occupation of Ukraine as an astounding success, will strive to quickly replace the regime in Kiev with a puppet government and will most likely demand a referendum to determine that “the Ukrainian people want to return to Mother Russia.” Belarus, Russia’s only ally, is not far from that either.

After a brief hiatus and in line with developments vis-a-vis the United States and NATO, Putin will have to decide whether to continue the momentum and strongly demand “demilitarization” or even a military presence in the Baltic NATO member states, some of which have a Russian minority “to be protected from genocide.” Moldova, whose Transnistrian region is already under Russian influence, could be another target.

The crisis in Ukraine is only the first stage in an emerging global crisis. Already now one can get the impression that Russian aggression has caused a historic change in the attitude of NATO member states and even neutral European countries and led to union and readiness to challenge Russia militarily if it dares to attack one of them.

Germany will supply 1,000 anti-tank missiles and 500 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine; The Netherlands will supply anti-tank weapons and Howitzer artillery to the attacked country; Finland and Sweden changed their long-standing neutrality policy, announcing arms shipments to Kyiv after participating in a NATO meeting discussing the situation in Ukraine. The European Union will fund the purchase of weapons for the Ukrainian government in the amount of 450 million euros, for the first time ever to fund weapons for a country at war, including aircraft, probably MiG-29s still active in the Air Force in Poland and Bulgaria.

Worse for Putin, in a historic policy change, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced a huge defense investment that will now jump to 2% of his country’s GDP, and this year the budget will stand at 100 billion euros, compared to 47 billion last year. “It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country. In order to protect our freedom and our democracy,” Scholz said.

Back to the Cold War

Severe financial and economic sanctions, including against Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, the closure of European airspace to all Russian planes, the blocking of state-owned Russian propaganda media (RT- Russia Today and Sputnik), Russia’s expulsion from the Eurovision Song Contest and important football competitions, have provoked a 30% devaluation of the ruble and jumping of the interest rate to 20% from 9% as well as severe image damage to the Putin regime.

It is interesting to note in this context the cautious position of China, which expressed support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and joined the sanctions on some Russian banks.

In fact, we are back to the Cold War, this time not according to ideological inclinations but according to national geopolitical interests.

As will be recalled, during the Cold War, Israel was important for the United States and NATO, the Western democratic alliance, in the strategic area of ​​the Middle East vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc and its radical Arab allies.

In the new reality, Israel is once again becoming a country of great strategic importance to the West, this time under improved conditions.

Militarily, Israel is stronger, albeit a foreign partner of NATO but integrated into a large part of the organization’s drills and a regional ally with Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus. In addition, Turkey has stopped opposing Israel’s involvement in NATO activities.

Israel now has stable peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and warm Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco and a secret but developing relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The Palestinian problem as a disruptive factor in Israeli-European relations has lost its importance due to power struggles in the Palestinian Authority over Abu Mazen’s legacy, Hamas’s weakness in the regional and international arena, and a developing relationship between Israel and other Arab and Muslim countries.

The Turkish problem

The problem of President Erdogan’s Turkey’s place in this regional system remains. Turkey is still a member of NATO, in a crucial geopolitical location, on Russia’s southern border, and maintains the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits into the Black Sea. Its relations with Russia are complex, especially in Syria and Central Asia, after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and its close relations with Ukraine. Lately, Turkey strengthened its relations with the United Arab Emirates and is flirting with Egypt.

Considering Erdogan’s attempt to improve relations with Israel, and despite much suspicion about his future conduct, the possibility of coordinating positions in the context of the interests of the two states in Syria should be examined.

Despite the US tendency to move away from the Middle East to concentrate on the confrontation with China, in the new reality, when the results of the confrontation with Russia will also affect the Asian arena, the importance of countries in our region will increase, including for prices and supplies of gas and oil to Europe.

The importance of Israel as a long-standing and stable ally in an area threatened by upheavals will also increase.

Israel has two crucial strategic problems in its relations with Russia.

The immediate problem is the Russian military presence in Syria and whether there is a danger of change in the existing arrangements that have allowed Israel to act fairly freely against attempts by Iran, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias to establish an extraterritorial presence near the Golan Heights, and beyond, with constant threat from the northern front.

The Russian-Syrian “air patrol” near the Golan in January and several other Russian moves in southern Syria were probably a signal from the Kremlin to Israel to act according to Russian interests in the emerging crisis in Europe, including mentioning the Golan Heights as occupied territory after Foreign Minister Lapid’s speech condemning the attack on Ukraine. We have seen the results in Israel’s cautious and hesitant political approach since the outbreak of the crisis.

In the medium term, Russia’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue is also very important, given its role in the ongoing negotiations in Vienna, as a country that should absorb a large part of the enriched uranium and technical equipment to be released from Iran.

The above should not be interpreted as an attempt to cast Israel into a hostile actor of Russia in the region in general and in Syria in particular.

Israel’s main goal is to convince President Putin that its policy in Syria against Iran and its allies is a cardinal strategic need and Israel will not give up or reduce its actions against the presence and subversion of the “axis of resistance” on Syrian soil.

Israel can assure Russia of neutrality and continued close coordination regarding its activities against the “axis of resistance” that will enable the continued survival of the Assad regime, the Russian military presence there, and the preservation of its interests in the country.

Russia knows well from past experience, while supporting Arab states fighting Israel, that the Jewish state does not shy away from defending its existential interests and has always found the creative solutions to neutralize the threat of Soviet or Russian weapons directed against it.

Russia should also consider that its naval status in the Eastern Mediterranean has weakened as a result of the unification and assertiveness of NATO member states.

After the Turkish foreign minister called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a war, President Erdogan said on February 28 that Turkey would use the authority given by the 1936 Montreux Treaty to move to prevent an escalation in the crisis by restricting the passage of warships (most clearly referring to the Russian navy assets) through the Straits from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. This decision may help repair Turkey’s ties with NATO, even though it risks Russian retaliation.

Therefore, maintaining a correct relationship with Israel will be even more important for Russia in the future.

The Russian position regarding the Iranian nuclear program is more complex. It is possible that even after the signing of an international agreement, Tehran could decide to strive for a military nuclear capability, as a lesson from the case of Ukraine, which dismantled its nuclear weapons arsenal after 1994, based on the commitment of the United States, Russia and Britain to respect its independence and sovereignty.

In addition, Iran can request and receive from Russia defensive weapons such as S-400 batteries and advanced fighter jets that will protect it from attacks against its nuclear facilities, since sanctions in this area were lifted as early as October 2020.

Israel may be able to negotiate with Russia to find alternatives that do not strengthen Iran.

In conclusion, in an era of a new Cold War, under more complex geopolitical conditions, with Russia isolated in the international arena and challenged in the Eastern Mediterranean basin, it is important that Israel clearly identify, at the political level, with the Western alliance, as already reflected in Israel government’s decision to support the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ultimately, US and European support for Israel is extremely important if and when the Iranian nuclear issue should require a military solution, perhaps in the not-too-distant future.

Vis-à-vis Russia, Israel must pursue an assertive policy, but respect its immediate strategic interests in Syria.

About the Author
Dr. Ely Karmon is Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya