News Analysis: Russia, Israel proclaim continuing close cooperation in region after leaders' meeting

2021-10-24 15:35:48 GMT2021-10-24 23:35:48(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, Oct. 24 (Xinhua) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday in Russia. It was the first meeting between the two leaders since Bennett took office in June.

Bennett hailed that Israeli-Russian relations are "based on the deep ties...which you (President Putin) have led for the last 20 years."

Putin, who met frequently with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Bennett he hoped the new government of Israel "will pursue a policy of continuity with regard to Russian-Israeli relations."

At the end of the visit, Putin extended another invitation to Bennett.

In recent years, Russia and Israel have developed close ties on various levels. Israel is home to a large Russian speaking community, most of whom are Jewish immigrants from the USSR. Economic ties between the two countries have also strengthened over the same period. Russians make up a significant portion of incoming tourists to Israel.

For Israel, the relationship with Russia is critical. Russia has a major presence in Syria, which shares a border with Israel. The Russian presence in Syria, a hostile country to Israel, is pivotal for the Jewish country. Since the civil war erupted in Syria a decade ago, Russia has partnered with Iran to help bolster the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has taken advantage of the situation to boost its presence in Syria. As Israel's arch-enemy, Iran's activity along the Israeli northern border is a major concern to Bennett's government.

The Israeli air force has been operating in Syria for several years, with an attempt to roll back Iranian involvement in the area. Realizing the potential of collision with Russian forces in Syria, Israel and Russia established a military hotline in order to coordinate operations and avoid clashes.

"Both sides always understand what is at stake that they have to tread very carefully, not to rock the boat, because this is the Middle East and things are very delicate," said Dr. Anna Geifman, a senior researcher at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

In 2018, an incident put the relations through a major test. Syrian air defense systems downed a Russian plane with an attempt to deter Israeli jets from operating in Syria. Fifteen Russian crew members were killed. After the incident, it appeared that Israel scaled down its aerial activities for a few months.

In recent weeks, Israel is believed to be behind several attacks in Syria, including a sniper attack which killed a former Syrian lawmaker, who Israel claims is helping Iran in the country.

"There are problems in this regard, and they are numerous. But there are also points of contact and opportunities for cooperation, especially where matters related to fighting terrorism are involved," Putin said ahead of the meeting with Bennett when referring to Syria.

The delicate balancing act, which Russia and Israel play in Syria, makes Israel especially cautious when it comes to how to deal with Russia.

"Israel has been extremely solicitous of Russia, which shows that Russians have at least some leverage on Israel," said Gideon Remez, a researcher of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "There is not a complete confluence of Israeli and Russian interests, on either the Syrian or Iranian issue."

"Israel has always presented the cooperation and coordination with Russia in Syria as a major achievement, but it also means that Israel has to pay some kind of price," he added.

Another thorny issue is the re-negotiation of the Iranian nuclear agreement. While Israel wants to see that Iran is denied of nuclear abilities, Russia is less adamant on the matter and will not likely exert its influence on the Islamic republic.

"Russia is not about to confront Iran or endanger their trade or common interests," said Remez.

"Both Russia and Israel do not want a strong Iranian presence in Damascus," Geifman told Xinhua, adding "but the Russians are not ready to collaborate with Israel or with anyone else by putting pressure on Iran over their nuclear program. Russia wants a strong Iran in order to counterbalance the U.S. in the region."

"Israel can't expect Russia to help to denuclearize Iran, this will never happen," she added.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also a delicate issue in the relationship. Bennett is a staunch and vocal opponent of the two-state solution, while Russia recognizes a Palestinian state. Publicly at least, Israel has not confronted Russia on the matter for years. Statements by both Putin and Bennett were void of the subject and it is not clear it was discussed at all. Enditem