The Russia-Israel Relationship Is Perfect Realpolitik

President Vladimir Putin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The two powers recognize they have enough common ground to work together, and have learned to tolerate disagreement.

In world politics, the Middle East remains the region with the most serious security challenges. Observers agree that it is undergoing a stage of drastic changes that will define its future. Among the factors shaping the region, Israel’s foreign policy is traditionally of paramount importance, and Israeli-Russian relations are a significant element. While the West in general and the United States in particular try to balance different, foreign and domestic factors within their relations with Israel, Russian foreign policy, based on realist ideas of national interest, negotiations and bargaining, provides for strengthening cooperation with Israel wherever it is possible. Neither country tries to hide disagreements, but both are eager to work together where their interests coincide.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s two visits in recent weeks—one to the United States, another to Russia—could hardly be more different. The trip to Washington received vast media attention and commentary, while the talks in Moscow were met with just a few short official statements. The fact that it was the first meeting of the Israeli prime minister with the new American president only partially explains the difference. U.S.-Israeli relations are an item of American domestic politics. The same can be said about the relations of most Western countries with Israel—whether Germany, with its emotional attachment to Israel, or France, with its historically complicated Middle Eastern policy. One can hardly imagine that Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to any Western country could be a routine political matter.

At the same time, the question stands whether the short (in Russian diplomatic terminology) working visit to Moscow can be of greater significance to Israeli foreign policy and the state of the Middle East than the meeting with Donald Trump, with all the media and public attention, and with the new administration’s policy towards the Middle East still unclear. During the last couple of decades, Western countries’ foreign policies have been rather idealistic. Western leaders and diplomats have designed and conducted policy considering a broad range of ideological criteria, determining cooperation with other countries by the level of their democratic development. However, even with such a simple definition, such an approach to foreign policy raises many questions, starting with “what is democratic?”

In the case of Israel, further complications arise. On the one hand, during the decades of the Cold War, Israel became an integral part of the Western political order. On the other hand, Israel’s absolutely unique history, the essence of Israeli statehood, and Israeli security interests in a hostile environment have provided for some domestic- and foreign-policy phenomena that various members of Western publics cannot accept—including Israel’s settlements policy. Then, when Western electoral politics kicks in, the West’s policy towards Israel must become more nuanced and, thus, to a certain degree less effective.

It should be emphasized that there is no harm in a country’s foreign policy taking into account public opinion. The challenge is to subordinate foreign policy to an ideology, especially to one implying or even demanding changes in the domestic politics of other sovereign countries. The Kremlin’s position obviates this challenge altogether—Russia’s foreign policy is about protecting national interests in interaction with other states and their interests. Its relations with Israel are arguably the best example.

At the core of all national interests is the provision of security. Russia and Israel have the same enemy—Islamic terrorism. Without “buts” and “ifs”: it is difficult to imagine that Israeli or Russian decisionmakers could ever construe, for example, Islamic extremists operating in Syria or elsewhere as “freedom fighters.” According to the Israeli prime minister, “One of the things that unites us is our common fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Substantial progress has been made over the last year in fighting radical Sunni Islamic terrorism led by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and Russia has made a great contribution to this result and this progress.”