Israelis Now Forced To Consider The Putin Factor
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Israelis Now Forced To Consider The Putin Factor

Is Russia no longer Israel’s security blanket in the Syrian civil war?

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

IDF soldiers at the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Basel Awidat/Flash90
IDF soldiers at the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Basel Awidat/Flash90

Israelis and Americans should be asking the same question this week: What have been the interactions between their respective leaders and Russia?

The sensational news that the FBI has confirmed it is investigating members of President Donald Trump’s campaign for possible ties to Russia comes as Israelis are now adjusting to a new reality: that their security rests, to a growing degree, on the conduct of Moscow.

In the space of a few days, the Syrian crisis here has gone from “out of sight, out of mind” to a source of intense worry. It’s not that the situation in Syria wasn’t alarming before, but the developments of recent days have forced it onto everyone’s minds.

Residents of the Golan Heights have long been worrying about what is happening over the Syrian border, though even there, amid the relaxed heavily agricultural communities, the clashes between the regime and rebels can seem a long way off. But far away from the border, residents heard explosions early last Friday morning.

The sound of a missile-defense system neutralizing an explosive-laden Syrian surface-to-air missile hurtling towards the Jordan Valley was heard in Jerusalem and Modi’in, reminding Israelis just how small their country is. What’s more, any ambiguity about whether Israel is operating in Syria ended as it confirmed that it had struck in Syria to prevent the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.

The Israeli military was forced to come clean — it needed to explain what the sound was and explain why missiles (there were others apart from the one that was neutralized) were being fired. Israeli Air Force planes “targeted several targets in Syria,” the military confirmed in a statement about its “Overnight Mission in Syria,” adding that the anti-aircraft missiles were launched “from Syria following the mission.” Since this Israeli admission, there have been reports of at least two other Israeli strikes in Syria, including one which is said to have killed a prominent loyalist of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

It’s no longer easy to dismiss Syrian fire “straying” over the border to Israel as unintentional spillover, as was widespread until now. It became common in the years leading up to the Syrian civil war to see the Assad regime as benign in relation to Israel. And it has been popular during the Syrian conflict for Israelis to tell themselves that the various parties are so busy fighting each other that it buys Israel calm.

People now need to stare at the stark reality — namely that the weapons transfers and troop movements going on in a conflict that combines the strength of Assad, the Iranian regime and Hezbollah pose such a danger to Israel that its military feels compelled to carry out airstrikes to control the situation.

What was said about Israeli activities over the Syrian border a week ago only during private meetings is now discussed openly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “When we detect attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah and we have the intelligence and feasibility to carry out an operation, we will work to prevent it,” he said.

But if Israelis are internalizing this reality, they’re still mostly failing to grasp the new and unsettling questions about the Russian regime. Russia is Israel’s security blanket in the Syrian civil war, with its presence there helping to keep the Syrian regime from acting against Israel, isn’t it? Perhaps not, seeing that Russia didn’t prevent the firing of anti-aircraft missiles towards Israeli targets.

The situation is baffling, even to Syria experts like Hebrew University’s Moshe Maoz. “There are so many enigmas, and it’s very difficult to know what is going on,” Maoz told me this week. Was the Syrian regime prepared to act against Israel in defiance of Russia, which would be worrying, or did Russia give it the go-ahead to fire, which would be deeply concerning?

In Maoz’s analysis, when Israel acts in Syria it does so with the Russian OK, and the natural assumption would be that Assad is doing the same in regard to any actions against Israel. But whatever agreements exist are almost certainly far more complicated and nuanced.

Two weeks ago Netanyahu stood at the Kremlin, talking to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin about Purim and the concern of Israelis of modern Haman-like plans to destroy the Jews. The prime minister said the two are “fighting together” against Islamic terror. But what was the substance of the Netanyahu-Putin discussion? What are the agreements that they hammered out between closed doors, and could they have really been so unfavorable to Israel that they allowed for missiles towards Israeli targets?

Putin seems to be holding a lot of cards that will determine Israel’s future security and its ability to deal with the threats against its citizens. Let’s not forget that the issue isn’t only about what Putin will let Assad get away with, but also what he’ll allow Israel to do. “If Russia wanted to prevent Israel from flying over Syria, it could,” said Maoz. So, much as Israeli leaders like to say that the Jewish state today can rely only on itself to confront security threats, it’s at the mercy of Putin if it wants to deal with major threats being raised by the Syrian civil war. Beyond this, there’s the major question of how Russia’s assistance to the Syrian regime in the civil war could be setting the stage for the long-term entrenchment of Iran in Syria.

Putin’s power in this region could well grow further if relations between Trump’s White House and the Kremlin improve. I was constantly asked here during the U.S. election campaign what Trump would mean for Israel, and would he move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Each time I replied that for Israel the location of the embassy pales in significance to the question of what the impact of his policies could be in Syria.

Despite the growing importance of Putin in this part of the world, Israelis commonly see him either as a security blanket, or an irrelevance. “They think about him as someone who is remote and not very interested in what is happening between Syria and Israel,” said Tamar Hermann, a public opinion expert who conducts regular polls across Israel.

They “absolutely do not” see him as having the power to determine Israel’s security, she added.

What’s more, Israelis like Putin. A month after he confirmed military involvement in Syria, back in 2015, Hermann asked in a poll who is a more impressive leader, then-U.S. President Barack Obama or Putin. To 50.5 percent of the Jewish public, it was Putin.

This regard for Putin is still strong today, she said. “The Israeli Russians are fascinated by him and others see him as the positive mirror image of Obama. While they didn’t like Obama they see Putin as a good example — he has come out as an admirable leader.”

And so, Hermann said, Putin will remain in the eyes of many Israelis an impressive leader, but one who has little relevance to their lives. She is probably right unless, of course, he decides to comment on whether America should move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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