by Paul R. Pillar
In a recent article on Israel’s foreign relations, Robert Danin observes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin “clearly enjoy a better relationship with each other than either does with U.S. President Barack Obama.” The Russian-Israeli relationship has indeed been smooth to cordial in recent years, at the level of top leaders as well as more generally. Cordiality at the top tends to get explained in terms of personalities and the inclinations of individual leaders. This certainly has been true of much critical commentary in the United States about how President Obama has conducted U.S. relations with Israel. But better and more complete explanations take account of past policies of the states concerned toward each other, domestic political expectations about what the foreign relationships involved ought to look like, and how those expectations relate to actual conflicts or commonality of interests. Ultimately it is those interests, more than the attributes of the leaders, that determine the tone of relations and what we observe when leaders meet.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship carries a very strong expectation, especially within domestic U.S. politics, that the relationship is and ought to be one of strong and unshakable friendship. Any apparent deviation from that expectation is treated as if it were a serious problem. Such consternation loses sight of the continued and extremely generous U.S. financial and diplomatic support to Israel. It also loses sight of the policies of the Netanyahu government that have been far removed from strong friendship. Such policies have included efforts to undermine important U.S. foreign policy initiatives (most notably negotiation of the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program) and practices that run directly counter to the objective that the United States shares with many others of achieving a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The tone of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and of meetings between the two countries’ leaders, reflects conflicting interests, at least given how the current Israeli leadership defines its interests.
The U.S.-Russian relationship does not involve anything like the expectation within U.S. politics about the U.S.-Israeli relationship. There instead prevails an opposite expectation: that Russia is an adversary of the United States just as the USSR was during the Cold War. The expectation entails the erroneous view that Russian interests in the Middle East and elsewhere are in a zero-sum relationship with U.S. interests. Domestic criticism of President Obama’s handling of U.S.-Russian relations is not so much that he has failed to achieve cordiality with his Russian counterpart than that he has not been tough enough with him. The policy background that gets lost sight of here includes Western policies based on that Cold War-like zero-sum assumption (especially the expansion of NATO) and how such policies have had something to do with Putin’s gambits in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The overemphasis on personalities and personal chemistry characterizes post-meeting commentary whenever the U.S. and Russian presidents have met. After one such meeting in which much was made in the press about body language, Mr. Obama felt obliged to make his own comment about the commentary, noting that Putin has “got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom.” Personal chemistry matters, but not nearly as much as the pursuit of interests having real consequences on the ground, even if the interests are mistakenly interpreted.
The Israeli-Russian relationship is not encumbered by the sort of domestic political expectations, either positive or negative, that characterize American treatment of U.S. relations with either of the other two countries. About the only emotional factor, rooted in domestic politics, that comes somewhat into play is a sense of affinity based on the large number of Russian émigrés in Israel. So actual national interests, as distinct from presumed ones, are more determinative of the direction and tone of the relationship.
The respects in which Russian interests and the declared interests of Israel may conflict are well known. They center on Russia’s relations with Iran (including Moscow’s participation in negotiation of the nuclear agreement) and Russia’s backing of the same side in the Syrian civil war as Iran and Hezbollah. But dip underneath the rhetoric (especially Israeli rhetoric about Iran) and the conflicts are not so sharp. The agreement that has placed Iran’s nuclear program under tight restrictions and monitoring is—as many Israeli security professionals have assessed—in the interests of Israel’s security. And an important background to the mixed Israeli interests involved in the Syrian civil war is that Israel enjoyed many years of quiet on the Golan front with the Assads in power, which is something it cannot expect with almost any possible alternative outcome of the war.
The current Israeli and Russian governments also can see commonality in dealing with unhappy and restive Muslim populations in territories they control. Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes that trouble in the breakaway republic of Chechnya began “originally as a secular separatist movement that grew increasingly radical Islamist in nature in no small part due to Moscow’s heavy-handed policies and egregious human rights abuses.” Substitute “Israel” for “Moscow” and this statement would apply as well to unrest in the Palestinian territories. Both governments like to label all such unrest as “terrorism,” and Putin has explicitly compared the Russian and Israeli situations in such terms.
The interests have been sufficiently common for the relationship to develop in recent years with cooperation on matters of national security and high politics. Netanyahu and Putin now have a secure hot line between their offices. Israel has sold advanced military technology to Russia, specifically in the form of surveillance drones—one of which was shot down over Ukraine. Israel has declined to criticize Russian policies regarding either Chechnya or Ukraine. It abstained on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s seizure of Crimea—even though votes on some other General Assembly resolutions have been among the rare instances of any return favor from Israel for all the United States does on its behalf, including casting lonely Security Council vetoes.
Calculations regarding each country’s posture toward the United States have helped to shape the Israeli-Russian relationship. Boshchevskaya observes that Putin cares about “sticking a finger in the eye of the West and, more broadly, weakening the West” and that “for Netanyahu, in the context of strained relations with President Obama it is especially important to create a better understanding with Putin.” In other words, the Russian and Israeli leaders share an interest in jointly sticking a finger in the eye of the United States.
This sort of situation, in which two states team up to frustrate and oppose a third, is one instance of exercising what realists would call a balance of power. It is such a realist explanation, more so than analyses of body language or leadership styles, that tell us why meetings between Netanyahu and an un-slouching Putin seem to go so well.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.