Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Russian President to visit Israel in June

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Despite Israel and Russia holding strongly divergent views on key Middle East issues - the violence in Syria, Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Israel and Russia have against the odds managed to retain good relations since the end of the Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted last year saying:

"Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country... Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. It's obvious that more than half of the population speaks Russian."

While that last statement is a bit of an exaggeration, according to Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist who completed a book on the subject more than one million Russian Jews came to Israel between 1990 and 1996. A 2011 report in the Guardian stated that more than 15 percent of Israel's total population today are immigrants from the former USSR. As a result, Israel is home to the world's largest diaspora of Russian speakers outside of the majority Russian-speaking countries. The large Russian speaking population in Israel has strengthened trade, tourism and security cooperation between Israel and Russia.

Russia's ‘friendliness' has been made even clearer with Putin's decision to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in late June. It will be Putin's first visit to Israel since 2005.  Jonathan Tobin in Commentary Magazine noted the significance of the visit:

"His visit is more than just a diplomatic exercise as it sends a powerful message about Israel's legitimacy to hostile Middle East nations that still look to Russia for support."

According to the Times of Israel, on June 25 Putin will arrive in Israel and meet with his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials. Putin will also attend the unveiling ceremony of a memorial erected in Netanya in honour of Red Army soldiers killed during World War II. Plans for the memorial were discussed by Netanyahu and Putin during Netanyahu's visit to Moscow in 2010.  Putin will then travel to the Palestinian territories and Jordan on June 26, where he will meet President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah. He is also expected to visit the Baptism site of Jesus Christ, in the Hashemite Kingdom.

As noted, Israel's friendly relationship with Russia continues despite very divergent views on important regional issues.

Russia continues to support and arm the Assad regime in Syria under contracts that see Russia ship about $1 billion in weapons per year, despite Syria's brutal crackdown on dissenters - approximately 15,000 people have been killed since the Assad regime began its crackdown in March 2011. Russia has vetoed two previous UN Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Assad for his use of force. On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned Russia for selling arms and military equipment to Syria, warning that new reports of helicopter transfers would seriously "escalate the conflict quite dramatically".  Israeli leaders have also been quite outspoken in demanding more be done about the human rights violations by the Assad regime - see here and here.

In addition, Russia has also been preventing stronger action against the Iranian nuclear program. Russia is against military intervention that would neutralise the Iranian nuclear program, despite the mounting evidence that Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons, and has opposed most of the stronger sanctions placed on Iran in recent months.

Moreover, because of Russia's veto power in the Security Council and its membership of the P5+1 (which is currently negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program), Russia's stances matter a great deal in effecting how much pressure can be applied to Teheran.

Historically, Russia and Israel relations have seen their ups and downs, especially during the Cold War. The USSR was one of the first countries to recognise Israel, and the two nations established diplomatic ties shortly after Israel declared independence in May 1948. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the USSR backed Israel, and Czechoslovakia, part of the Soviet bloc, provided Israel with critical arms. However, from the 1950s, relations soured as the USSR sided with Israel's Arab enemies. Relations reached a low point during the 1967 Six-Day War when the USSR cut diplomatic ties with Israel. In October 1991, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and Israel resumed diplomatic relations, and since then relations have generally been reasonably positive.

Today the Israel-Russia relationship is getting closer, despite policies on the Middle East often being worlds apart.

Sharyn Mittelman

 

 

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