The Russians are coming

The sudden call for new elections in Israel may delay the unveiling of President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace “deal of the century” but whenever it comes, it is likely to be dead on arrival. Meanwhile, his frenemy Vladimir Putin is moving in to fill the Middle East power vacuum left by the past two American administrations.

Hints and leaks from Trump officials, including Amb. David Friedman indicate that the American plan will abandon the two-state solution and more closely follow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s view of limited autonomy for West Bank Palestinians under Israeli aegis, heavy on economic incentives and short on sovereignty and territory.

Trump has effectively cut ties to the Palestinian Authority, which has said it will reject anything short of statehood and is looking to its old allies in Moscow to fill the once exclusive American role of honest broker. They are confident the Russians would put Jerusalem back on the table after Trump claimed to have removed it.

Putin has something Trump doesn’t have and apparently doesn’t want: influence with the Palestinians.  Trump thinks he can rely on the Saudis to handle that for him so he can continue to diss Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (who can be his own worst enemy) and the PA, impressing his U.S. political base of evangelical Christians and conservative and wealthy American Jews.  Putin knows that’s a formula for failure and he is glad to step in to fill the vacuum.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Russia’s Sputnik news agency, “We are ready to talk with Israel without any conditions…as long as the invitation comes from President Putin, as long as President Putin is the host.”

While the last thing Netanyahu wants is a serious effort to launch peace negotiations, he is in no position to say no to Putin. In many ways he’s more vulnerable to pressure from Putin than by Trump, who still needs him for domestic political purposes.

Trump has accelerated Barack Obama’s pivot away from the Middle East to the Far East at a time when Putin is seeking to restore Russia’s role in the region and become the sole foreign military power along the Mediterranean coast, according to Asia Times.

As Syria’s strongest ally and the one that did the most to rescue Bashar Assad’s regime (Iran might disagree), Russia is negotiating a long-term lease on the Soviet-era naval base Syria’s Tartus port in its effort to cement a foothold in the Mediterranean with permanent military presence at air and naval bases in Syria. It already has an air base in Khmeimim.

Syria is a major Russian client going back to the Soviet era and owes Moscow billions, which can’t be repaid if Assad is overthrown or driven out by Israel.

The Iranians are also looking for some payoff for their military intervention on Assad’s behalf. They have a partial lease of the Latakia port, ostensibly for economic purposes, are also looking for a long-term presence in Syria, where they support pro-Iranian factions in the Syrian military and civilian sectors. Tehran sees Syria as a strategic bridge to the Mediterranean and its Hizbollah clients in Lebanon, which is seen as a direct threat by Israel.

That puts Moscow in the middle.

Russia has friendly relations with Israel and knows Jerusalem considers Iran its leading existential threat and has not blocked Israeli strikes at Iranian and its proxies’ targets but on one condition: stay out of Russia’s way and give ample warning so there won’t be a repeat of incidents like the one in which Syria shot down a Russian spy plane, possibly because of confusing signals by Israel.

Iran has been building bases and factories in Syria and has provided Hizbullah with vast numbers of missiles capable of hitting any target in Israel plus abundant other weapons, logistics, training, production and intelligence.

It doesn’t hurt Russia’s interests to see, Iran, its rival for influence in Syria, weakened.  But Moscow is still selling air defense systems to Damascus and Tehran.

Putin is intent on restoring Russia’s international prestige and ending American global domination. He has an unwitting ally in Trump, who spoke often during the campaign of his admiration for the Russian strongman and appeared to share his desire to see American shrink its role in world affairs.  Trump, with his persistent attacks on NATO and threats to quit, also has abetted Putin’s desire to weaken and divide the western alliance.

Also seeking to fill the Middle East power vacuum is China, which is competing with Russia and Iran for ports on the Mediterranean and reconstruction contracts in the war-torn state.  Beijing has the strongest economy of the three and is looking for commercial projects to invest in, particularly in transport.

The Mueller report said, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”  But since it did so to Trump’s benefit, the president been particularly deferential to Putin.

Trump invited (“Russia, if you’re listening”) and benefitted from the hack attacks by Moscow’s Internet Research Agency  (IRA) and the GRU, the country’s military intelligence agency, that were funneled through Wikileaks.

Putting his personal interest above the national interest, Trump apparently sees any admission of that interference as delegitimizing his own election. That may explain why his administration is doing virtually nothing to prevent a recurrence as his 2020 reelection campaign gears up despite repeated public and private warnings from its own top intelligence officials.  Interference took place, Mueller said, on two tracks “the social media campaign and the hacking-and-dumping operations – violated U.S. criminal law.”

Trump came to office determined to shrink America’s global footprint, and Putin is gladly stepping in to take the lead. What that means for an Israel that has traditionally relied on the United States as its key ally is far from clear, but there are ominous clouds on the horizon.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.