Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the fourth such trip by the Prime Minister since September. The meeting coincided with the 25th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia, at a time when the two nations face both common and divergent interests in the Middle East.
In a news conference, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin discussed the need to combat terrorism in the region. President Putin said the two nations were “unconditional allies” in the fight, but remained vague about what actions they would take and against whom exactly. Both Moscow and Jerusalem share a key interest in limiting expansion of ISIS, and other Sunni jihadists, such as the Nusra Front, but disagree over the threat of Shiite militancy.
Behind closed doors, both sides expressed a need to avoid direct clashes between Russian and Israeli military forces in the region, specifically over Syrian territory. Netanyahu’s visits reinforce an increased channel of communication, which have so-far eliminated unwanted exchanges of friendly fire when Russian warplanes “accidentally” flew over Israeli airspace. Both sides wish to avoid a damaging incident similar to when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 in Syria last November.
Bibi and Putin’s public conviviality masks a more complicated relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem, because Russia maintains relationships anti-Israel forces, including Iran, Hezbollah, and Bashar al-Asad. Israel does not want to become involved militarily in Syria, but also wants further assurances from Russia, the most influential power in the conflict, that Moscow might mitigate Hezbollah’s encroachment on the Golan Heights. Netanyahu called the organization’s presence on the Golan a “red line,” and told news agency Interfax that Israel will “not allow” Iran to back Hezbollah using Syrian territory to establish another attack front on its northern border. The transfer of sophisticated or biological weapons from Iran or the Asad regime to Hezbollah remains another grave concern for the Israelis.
Given that Russia has contracted to sell military equipment to Iran, Netanyahu has also tried to pressure the Kremlin into abandoning the transport of the long delayed—but still partially delivered—S-300 anti-aircraft missile defense system to the Islamic Republic.
Not all the discussions this week were security related. Netanyahu also mentioned the possibility of Russia investing in part of Israel’s natural gas fields. While there are no legislative barriers to the partnership, the EU is worried that the move would leave central and eastern European countries significantly vulnerable to the whim of the Kremlin, should Russia ever decide to shut off crucial gas supply. Other deals included Putin’s agreement to pay $83 million in pensions to thousands of Soviet-born immigrants in Israel, who were forced to give up their Soviet citizenship – and their pensions – when they left for Israel.