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A tale wrapped between love and hate: On the recent development of Russian-Israeli relations

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By Punsara Amarasinghe and Anastasia Glazova

The recent statement of Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Israel describing it as a Russian speaking country has gained an enormous attention from world media. few days after making such an audacious statement Russia allowed Syrian forces to activate their aircraft missiles against Israeli airstrike which simply shows the paradoxical nature of Russian-Israeli relations since the inception of Israel. However, the substance stemming from president Putin’s statement indicating Israel as a Russian speaking country implicitly reveals the strong affinity between Jews and Russians throughout the history. The presence of Jews in Russia dates back to 7th century A.D whereas their presence had always not been a tranquil one as Jewish community was subjected many discriminatory laws in Russian empire. Yet, the historical records illuminate some prominent Jews who could reach greater heights under Tsars. For an example famous diplomat in Peter the Great court, Peter Shafirov was born to a Jewish family and his contribution to establishing Russian approach to international law still remains magnanimous in Russian legal academia.

However, the attitude towards Jews during in the early period of Soviet Union, especially under Stalin the dozens of Jewish Russians were deported, persecuted. Stalin’s notorious anti-Semitic propaganda was widely exposed when he sent many distinguished Russian Jewish doctors in 1952 known as “Doctor’s Plot” and it was rumored that Stalin was planning to deport Jews in Leningrad and Moscow to the camps in the East. Yet, the forgotten factor for many is that USSR’s support played a crucial role in the establishment of Israel in 1947. Stalin’s ambassador Andrei Gromyko’s appealing speech which pressed on the catastrophes befell Jews in war and the need to establish an independent state and Stalin’s organized Eastern European Communist states to vote for the creation of state of Israel that decisively helped to gain two third majority in the UN. His assistance to the creation of Israel was further manifested as Soviet arms were given to infant state of Israel to survive from the onslaught of five Arabic states at its creation. One can see how strange it was for upholding such a double standard relation mixed with both despise and comity, yet Stalin motive may had focused on nurturing Israel as an independent state in the Middle East my lead to destabilize the region. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953 and till six days’ war the relations between Soviet Union and Israel was considered less problematic. However, relations started to get deteriorated in the aftermath of Six days’ war between Arab states and Israel that resulted in Israeli victory over Arab nations and Moscow support towards Arab countries was strengthen.
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The relation after the dissolution of USSR was taken a rather progressive approach as Yeltsin’s administration made a friendly move towards Tel Aviv.  Yet, it’s an indispensable factor to consider that audacious efforts   of president Putin in uplifting the lost glory of Russia in international political sphere has predominately carved the recent relationship between Tel Aviv and Moscow. For an example in 2006 Hamas could win the parliamentary elections held in Palestinian territories resulting a severe blow upon Palestinian – Israeli relations due to the fact that Hamas was considered a terrorist organization who could not even admit Israeli’s right to exist. Israel and the USA were disturbed by the results and they were adamant about isolating Hamas regime as a terrorist organization. But the reaction came from Russian leader towards Hamas gob smacked both Israel and the US as Putin affirmed his position by stating that Russia has never considered Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

In fact, Putin moved one step further by inviting a delegation of Hamas leaders to Moscow, which was seen by Israel and West as an outrageous act. Even though, Putin’s intervention did change the terrorist behavior of Hamas, his message simply conveyed Russia was not anymore a spectator in the Middle-East, but a player. Recently relations between Russia and Israel has been undoubtedly shaped up by Russian involvement in Syrian conflict. Moscow has been a defender of Assad’s regime when it was confronted by anti-government rebels and the situation began to deteriorate with the Israel as later became much concerned about Iranian presence in Syrian land, which Israel views as a serious threat. It is being estimated that Israel has been carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets to stop Teheran establishing a permanent military presence there and recent meeting between Israeli premier Netanyahu and Russian president Putin in Sochi, Israeli leader insisted that Israel should have freedom to act against Iran, if Iranian presence makes threat to the national defense of Israel.Etihad Airways APAC

All in all, the salient features looming from Russo-Israeli relations have been much complex as an inexplicable riddle. Despite all the political issues existing between Russia and Israel, both countries have adopted a visa free policy for the citizens of two states. On the other hand, the cultural roots stemming from Russian Jewish population lives in Israel has tightened Russian affinity with Israel and it proves Putin’s remarks about Israel as a Russian speaking country.  Overall, bilateral relations between Russia and Israel are positive, stemming from a robust area of shared interests. Israel’s most important relationship is with the United States. While Israel may want to diversify ties, it has no interest in replacing its primary strategic partner.

Russia recognizes this situation: as one former Israeli diplomat Adan Abu Ameer in Moscow commented, “They understand who we sleep next to every night.” While good relations with Russia may serve Israel’s interests, they will never be permitted to develop to a level that causes significant unease in Washington. If U.S.-Russia relations continue to deteriorate, the American administration may no longer “allow” one of its closest allies to maintain a positive relationship with Moscow. Once British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and Churchill showed Russia’s national interest as the key to solve it. As a matter of fact, the present complexity of Russian Israel relations would always should be ascertained in parallel to the interests of Moscow.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher in international law at institute of law and politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy. He held one-year research fellowship at Higher School of Economics I Moscow and holds a master’s degree in public international law from South Asian University, New Delhi.  Anastasia Glazova is a PhD researcher in public international law at faculty of law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow. She worked as an assistant government prosecutor in Vologda oblast in Russia and her research interests includes Russian-EU relations, power politics in Arctic and Russia’s role in Central Asia.  

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