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Israel’s dilemma over Putin’s move on Ukraine

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As if relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration were not strained enough, Israel has refused to join the United States and its other allies in condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But that decision, though risky, is not altogether surprising: The U.S., after all, lacks an effective policy toward Russia’s presence in the Middle East, making it difficult for countries like Israel to stand up to the Kremlin.

The latest controversy emerged when a senior U.S. official complained to the influential Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about Israel’s refusal to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine or to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the United Nations General Assembly. It makes no sense, the official declared, for a country that relies so heavily on U.S. aid and diplomatic support to turn its back on its most important ally at such a critical moment.

Israel’s government responded by trying to placate the U.S. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in a meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and others, explained that Israel could not antagonize Russia for fear that it would provide Syria with sophisticated weapons systems (primarily S-300 anti-aircraft missiles) — a move that would upend the status quo in Israel’s strategic environment.

Netanyahu, it should be noted, tried to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin not to complete precisely that arms deal last year. And Putin has already warned that intervention in Ukraine would have consequences in the Middle East. While a U.N. General Assembly vote can hardly be defined as intervention, Israel is not willing to take any chances.

This is not the first time that Putin has intimidated Israel. When he threatened retaliation for Israel’s defense relationship with Georgia under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, a Kremlin foe, Israel acquiesced, abandoning the provision of weapons systems and relevant training.

But, when it comes to Israel’s deteriorating relationship with the U.S., Putin is not really the problem; Obama and Netanyahu are. While the bilateral relationship has undoubtedly experienced highs and lows, historically there has generally been a sense of trust — even warmth — between the countries’ leaders. That is sorely lacking today.

This chill extends to other top officials, especially in Israel. The country’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, recently insulted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and ridiculed America’s “weakness” in the international arena. Further complicating matters is Lieberman, who hails from the former Soviet Union and has played a role — albeit a marginal one — in managing the bilateral relationship. Though Lieberman has lately been advocating closer coordination with the U.S., his recent statements on the crisis in Ukraine, in which he discussed Israel’s relationships with the U.S. and Russia in the same terms — as if they were completely equal — have raised the ire of U.S. officials.

Rhetoric aside, Israel — like other U.S. allies in the Middle East — is worried about America’s gradual withdrawal from the region, a policy shift that has allowed Russia to regain lost influence there. And Russia has plenty of clout, employing its considerable diplomatic assets to affect the negotiations with Iran, while using weapons supplies to pursue its interests in troubled countries, from Syria to Egypt.

Against this background, Israeli officials have increasingly argued that Israel need not intervene in Russia’s relationships with Ukraine or the U.S., and should instead protect its interests vis-à-vis Russia. Moreover, they have declared that hostile members of Obama’s administration have intentionally blown the issue out of proportion for their own political ends.

And they have pointed out that Israel’s vote in the U.N. would not have made much difference, anyway.

Whatever the merits of either side’s perspective, the bottom line is that rising tension over the Ukraine crisis is jeopardizing the bilateral relationship — benefiting neither country.

Both governments need to take stock of their positions and figure out a way to compromise.

Obviously, Israel must pursue its own foreign policy, which it cannot develop and implement if it blindly supports every aspect of U.S. policy. Likewise, the U.S. does not need an Israel that depends completely on U.S. support, without its own resources and relationships.

But Israel must not play fast and loose with its most important strategic relationship. While Israeli officials are technically right that the country’s vote in the U.N. would have had little impact, its symbolic value cannot be overstated. With Israel’s international standing determined largely by its close relationship with the U.S., its failure to support the U.S. at such a sensitive moment is highly meaningful — and widely noticed.

For its part, the U.S. must recognize the correlation between its declining interest and influence in the Middle East and Israel’s current dilemma.

It is not up to Israel to prevent Russia from selling missiles and air-defense systems to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime or attempting to regain a dominant role in the region. Nor is it Israel’s place to get between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine. If Russia has created a linkage between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, America’s allies in the region expect their superpower friend to make it work in their favor, not to allow it to undermine further an already-delicate regional security balance.

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, is president of The Israel Institute and is a senior scholar at Tel Aviv University, New York University and the Brookings Institution. © 2014 Project Syndicate

  • Jimmy Bonds

    Good article. Unfortunately Obama did not keep relations with Israel as strong as he should have when he didn’t need to. Furthermore, Obama thought he could take USA down a different path. He was incorrect, and wasted trillions of US dollars, soldiers lives, and respect in the regain most important.

    Now he has this game with Russia and needs help from others, including the EU. The EU would have been more willing to assist either Bush as would all of the ME. But Obama is not one they can trust or fully trust, because Obama is only their friend when it is convenient for him. That is very dangerous way to play the game Mr. President.

  • simonzee1

    The West is morally inept as it is led by left wing nut jobs or right wing ignaramous’ s.
    I can tell you one thing…as an Australian I would never go to war fighting for France as we did in WWII. Not after Libya. The French are liars and hypocrites and violators of international law. They were part of the evil axis of France-America-Britain-Sunni governments that pumped half a billion dollars of illegal arms into Libya which are now in Syria and still they talk about international law and Obama’s different set of lawyers.

    They should also take their neo-colonialist aspirations out of northern and central Africa. On one hand the French minister calls for de-escelation in Ukraine like the Americans and on the other hand like the Americans they provoke Russia by going to Georgia. The grubby French are still after Syria and North and Central Africa.

    Can someone tell these idiots in the West that they have lost the propaganda war. Spin or no spin the West violated international law in Libya so they can hardly whine on Russia when they want to provoke Russia on their borders with interference in a sensitive and strategic nation like Ukraine. Is Libya on your borders France, Britain and America or you Sunni autocrats being propped up by the West? What is the state of Libya now? Chaos!

    I advised Putin back in 2011 after Russia and China were excluded from oil deals in Libya that the next target was Ukraine. How right I was.

    We need a united world beyond the mechanisms of the U.N and E.U that has respect for religion…traditions and culture. Americas foreign policy has been a disaster under Obama…Hillary C and Kerry.

  • simonzee1

    Obama can always get a job in Brussels after he is ousted. Americans won’t want him hanging around..

    If you want to look at the effect of the E.U and U.S regimes on foreign policy…look at Libya. You know the country that the Western Propaganda Press no longer reports on after Benghazi. 4,000 refugees every two days entering Europe through Libya in human trafficking. I can only imagine the horrors of this trip let alone the tension building in European states with this influx of refugees. For those who may have forgotten…Libya is the country that has not exported its oil without confict for over a year and a has a Congress that is shot at and has to shift its location regularly.

    Compare this to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine where soldiers on tanks hand over firing pins to protestors and you get the picture that only right wing and left wing nut jobs are in the U.S and E.U; and of course Brennan the head of the C.I.A who secretly flew into Kiev are the ones that want conflict. Just as they did in trying to ferment unrest in Cuba through US Aid.

    You are being taken for an ideological drive America. Iran and Syria are not the biggest threat to world peace. The U.S and E.U are the only regimes we should be concerned about.

    You know these zealots from the left like Bloomberg that want to take your guns and your upsized soda. The type that would be pathetic enough to close down a Maccas in Crimea and force out a Mozilla executive over support for traditional marriage. The Silicon Valley activists don’t have a problem with forcing this guy out after two weeks in the job…of making public attacks on World Vision and also of cashing in their shares before the market plummeted in tec stocks recently.

    The question at the end if the day is which regime is the most dangerous to our liberties at the moment? If your honest it is not Russia or Iran or Syria we need to be concerned about. It is the U.S and E.U regimes that are the most dangerous in violation of free speech and association and to world peace.

    Next stop…active censorship of the internet. Americans go to a European website and try to comment. There is no place for it. Obama failed to get his FCC media police into newsrooms so don’t think these lefties will not go after your internet. Now he has the FCC putting an end to a free internet at the behest of Hollywood. Just remember Obamas words that you can keep your plan and that he would run the most transparent administration America has ever seen. Yeah right…. Pfft.

    Your domestic policymaking is as fruitful as your foreign policy and you can count on that making people more enemies of each other than anything else. These are the regimes we should be concerned about.

  • Brian Geary

    Was MH17 Israel’s way of sending a message to Putin? A way of retaliating against his not doing Israel’s bidding by framing him for the mass murder of nearly 300 people?