Official Visit: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss strengthening ties between the two nations. (AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW — Israel, increasingly confounded by Washington’s Mideast policy, is mulling ways to enhance security cooperation with Moscow without jeopardizing its pre-eminent partnership with the US.
Acknowledging a shared frustration with Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the gulf over Washington’s perceived wavering on Iran and diminishing regional influence, Israeli officials are seeking to cultivate additional sources of support for its diplomatic and security agenda.
“The Americans have a lot of problems and challenges around the world that they need to solve and they have problems at home. We need to understand them and how that affects our place in the global arena,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
An outspoken and controversial political ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lieberman was reinstated as Israel’s chief diplomat after being cleared last week of longstanding corruption charges. Speaking Nov. 20 as Netanyahu traveled to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lieberman said Israel should strengthen ties with other powers as a means of advancing critical security interests in the region.
“Israel’s foreign policy for decades has focused on one direction — toward Washington. But my policy is multi-directional,” the Moldovan-born, Russian-speaking minister told a gathering in Sderot near Israel’s border with Gaza.
While expressing gratitude for traditional US support, Lieberman alluded to growing anger with Washington over its willingness to ease sanctions against Iran without a clear commitment from Tehran to dismantle its nuclear program.
“Our foreign policy needs to focus on finding allies and not just complaining and saying, ‘Come support us,’ ” he said.
Since clashing publicly with Washington over what it perceives as a precipitous rush to conclude a nuclear disarmament deal that fails to satisfy Israel’s security concerns, Israel has intensified diplomacy with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany involved in ongoing so-called P5+1 talks in Geneva.
Prior to Netanyahu’s Nov. 20-21 visit to Moscow, he hosted French President François Hollande in a high-profile state visit profuse with praise for Paris’ insistence on greater concessions from Tehran in exchange for preliminary sanctions relief.
But Israeli officials say diplomatic outreach is principally focused on Moscow, which Jerusalem views as the ultimate source of leverage on Iran in the P5+1 talks.
After more than four hours at the Kremlin, Netanyahu used words normally reserved for Israel’s relations with Washington. Speaking to reporters here Nov. 20, Netanyahu emphasized shared values, common interests and his personal “friendship” with Putin, which are steadily resulting in “closer, warmer, more intimate and productive” bilateral ties.
While Israel is under no illusions that Moscow will significantly alter its stance toward Tehran, it aims to augment its capacity to influence the scope and timing of arms sales to Iran and Syria.
Specifically, Israel hopes to forestall for as long as possible Russian deliveries of S-300 long-range air defense systems that would significantly complicate potential Israeli strikes.
In interviews here, Israeli sources said S-300 sales to Iran and Syria were a major agenda item at the Netanyahu-Putin talks. Sources declined to provide details, yet indicated Russia will continue to wait to implement contracts signed nearly seven years ago with both countries.
In joint public remarks at the Kremlin, Netanyahu admitted that Israel and Russia “don’t always agree.” Nevertheless, he insisted, “On the main things, we have a partnership.”
On the issue of Iran, Putin remained publicly noncommittal about Russia’s willingness to harden its stance in the P5+1 talks. He stood poker-faced as Netanyahu insisted that both countries share a common goal in not wanting to see Iran with nuclear weapons, and that lessons from a recent Moscow-led agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons should be applied in a nuclear disarmament deal with Iran.
“Israel’s attitude is that the international community must stand by positions expressed in the UN Security Council. Namely, to cease all enrichment, to remove all enriched material, to dismantle the centrifuges and to halt construction at Arak,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iran’s heavy water reactor and research complex suspected of supporting a separate plutonium track toward nuclear weapons.
No Substitute for the US
Israeli initiatives aimed at strengthening security cooperation with Moscow will be pursued with extreme caution so as not to jeopardize ties with Washington, which officials insist has been, is and will remain Israel’s closest friend and ally.
“There is no substitute to the United States,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told Defense News.
That said, Israel has agreed to cultivate cooperation in aviation, space, pharmaceutical, agricultural and energy sectors, and is considering expanded defense and dual-use exports to Russia.
Speaking to reporters following his meeting with Netanyahu, Putin said the two leaders “made plans for the future development of our relations.” He noted that in 2012, bilateral trade reached $3 billion and increased by 29 percent in the first eight months this year.
“This may not be an outstanding figure, but it is a positive trend in spite of global economic problems,” Putin said.
The Russian leader cited an intergovernmental commission “working actively” to broaden cooperation associated with the export of natural gas from Israel’s offshore energy sites. He also flagged the successful Sept. 1 launch of the Israeli-built Amos-4 communications satellite by a Russian Zenit launch vehicle and “common plans” to cooperate in joint development of two additional space vehicles.
An official here later explained that Putin was referring to Russian participation in Space IL, a nonprofit Israeli organization competing for a $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize to land a small unmanned spacecraft on the moon. As for energy cooperation, a source said Netanyahu invited Russia’s Gazprom to Israel to explore Russian proposals associated with maritime shipping of liquefied natural gas culled from Israel’s strategic offshore sites.
Despite resistance by some Israeli agencies to opening Israel’s energy market to Russia, an Israeli source accompanying Netanyahu noted that changes in the world are prompting a rethinking of its multilateral ties.
“Our ties with the US are strong and steadfast and persistent. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t open other avenues with other countries, like Russia, when there is a convergence of interests,” the source said.
As for expanded defense trade with Russia, sources said any easing of existing export restrictions would have to involve consultations with Washington and end-use assurances from Moscow that prospective arms transfers would not find their way into the hands of Israel’s enemies in the region.
Israel and Russia are implementing an estimated $400 million deal to provide Searcher and Birdeye UAVs produced by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries. Concluded in late 2010, the deal allows Israeli-produced kits to be assembled in Russia by state-owned Oboronprom Russian Industrial Corp. ■