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OPINION | Why Netanyahu is suddenly much less of a friend to Putin


Israel has maintained strict neutrality in hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, but that may be about to change.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 2020. Credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Editor's Note:

Anshel Pfeffer (@anshelpfeffer) is a staff writer for Ha'aretz and Israel correspondent for The Economist.

He is the author of "Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu."

The opinions expressed in this article belong exclusively to its author.

(CNN) --

Israel has maintained strict neutrality in hostilities between Russia and Ukraine long before the current war began nearly a year ago, but that may be about to change.

Since coming to power in late 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has done his best to court the Israeli leadership.

He made sure to meet at least once a year with the sitting prime minister, usually at his Sochi or Moscow residences, and every few years he traveled to Jerusalem.

A former Russian diplomat explained to me that "Putin respects force and sees Israel as a strong country with which he wants to maintain good relations."

The same is true of Israel's leaders, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister, who returned to office at the end of 2022.

Netanyahu was so proud of what he claimed to be a close relationship with Putin that in 2019 he used photos of them together as part of his election campaign.

He has claimed on multiple occasions that their relationship was advantageous to Israel's strategic interests.

One such example was when Russia first deployed its military to war-torn Syria in September 2015 to prop up the bloodied regime of President Bashar Assad.

Within days, Netanyahu was in Moscow at the head of a military delegation for an unscheduled meeting with Putin.

The two leaders reached an agreement whereby Israel would continue to operate in Syrian airspace, but would only strike targets linked to its enemy Iran, leaving Assad's forces intact.

A "conflict resolution mechanism" was quickly established, including a hotline between the Russian command center in Syria and the Israeli air force headquarters.

Over the years, senior Israeli officials have taken pains to stress that while Israel's main strategic ally remains the United States, maintaining coordination with the Russians was crucial.

In 2014, despite pressure from Washington, Israel refused to join Western governments in condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea.

He had to maintain strict neutrality at all times.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 of last year, Netanyahu was not in office.

The Prime Minister was Naftali Bennett and he stuck to the policy of neutrality.

Bennett explained to me that "we are not in the same position as other countries. We have Russia just across our border in Syria. We have to take into account the presence of large Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine, which could be seen And besides, it is useful for everyone to have a government like Israel, which has good ties with both parties, to serve as an intermediary."

  • Netanyahu could mediate to end Russia's war in Ukraine if asked by either side or the US.

In the first weeks of the war, Bennett embarked on a peace mission, visiting Putin in the Kremlin and holding multiple talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

He insists that "there was a 50% chance of reaching a ceasefire, unfortunately it failed."

He also claims that his involvement helped broker short-term local truces, which allowed civilians to be saved from the war zone.

Any hope of a ceasefire is long gone, and Ukraine has since publicly called on Israel to help supply weapons, especially missile defense systems like Iron Dome.

Israel has sent humanitarian aid, but has refused to send weapons.

In recent months, when Russia began using Iranian drones to attack Ukrainian targets, Israel agreed to provide Kyiv, through NATO, with intelligence and technical information on how to counter the drone threat.

Not all of the Israeli leadership agreed with Bennett's neutral policy.

His political associate and then foreign minister, Yair Lapid, was more direct in publicly condemning Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

Opinions were also divided in the country's security establishment.

An Israeli general told me that "the fear of Russia is exaggerated and Israel could have supported Ukraine much more without fear of retaliation."

Ten months after the Russian invasion, Netanyahu returned to power.

He was suddenly a lot less friendly with Putin.

He got a congratulatory call from her a week before he was sworn in, but that was it.

Meanwhile, in interviews with the media, he has said he is reconsidering Israel's policy on the Ukraine war, though he declined to specify any details.

“Netanyahu has two immediate reasons for changing policy and supporting Ukraine,” a former Israeli intelligence official who was heavily involved in Israel's military relationship with Russia told me.

  • How many wars has Russia been involved in under Putin's leadership?

"First of all, Russia has greatly diluted its forces in Syria, as they were needed in Ukraine. The threat they pose to Israel is now negligible," the official said.

"Second, Russia is now using Iranian drones and missiles on the battlefield and Israel now has a valuable opportunity to supply Ukraine with defense systems so we can see how well they do in a real war. Maybe one day we may have to face the same Iranian weapons," the official added.

An Israeli diplomat adds another reason why Netanyahu would consider supporting Ukraine more strongly.

Unlike the Bennett-Lapid government, his new coalition of ultra-right-wing and ultra-religious parties is viewed with suspicion by the Biden administration, which has already expressed its discontent with the new administration's plans for a legal review, which drastically weaken the powers and the independence of Israel's supreme court.

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Jerusalem and, unlike previous visits, did not invite the prime minister to the White House.

An Israeli turn to Kyiv could be Netanyahu's best hope for scoring points with Washington.

Benjamin Netanyahu Vladimir Putin

Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2023-02-08

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