This article is © 2016 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
This version was posted at
The Last Ditch on August 27, 2016 by WTM Enterprises.


Russia and Israel: the unmentioned relationship


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A great brouhaha has erupted in the U.S. presidential campaign over charges that Donald Trump is a Kremlin tool because of his desire for friendly relations with Russia. While he is being condemned from almost all quarters, even by those Democrats who in the past could be categorized as peaceniks, the strongest opposition comes from the neoconservatives, who are the most ardent in taking a hard line on Russia. A number of them are actively supporting Hillary Clinton after being allied with Republicans since Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980.

Now, the neocons are noted for being staunchly pro-Israel, maintaining that Israeli and American interests coincide. Yet neither they nor, for that matter, the American mainstream media have acknowledged the fact that Israel and Russia are developing a close relationship, which encompasses economic and security measures. That closer relationship is illustrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's three visits to Moscow since September 2015 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While frequently described as America's best ally, Israel has essentially placated Russia by distancing itself from the United States on the Ukrainian crisis, even refraining to vote on the UN General Assembly's non-binding resolution that affirmed the "territorial integrity of Ukraine" and declared Crimea's secessionist referendum to be invalid. The resolution passed by a vote of 100-11, with 58 abstentions. Israel is the only Western country that has not taken part in the international sanctions imposed on Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine. Israel's only official reaction to the Ukrainian issue was a rather tepid statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry on March 5, 2014, which read in full: "Israel is following with great concern the events in Ukraine, is anxious for peace for all its citizens, and hopes that the situation will not escalate to a loss of human life. Israel hopes the crisis in Ukraine will be handled through diplomatic means and will be resolved peacefully." According to Israeli media, Jerusalem agreed to issue the statement only after it was pressured to do so by the U.S. administration. [1]

The neocons should have found themselves in a difficult position here since they were portraying Russian actions as an effort to recreate the Soviet empire and replace democracy with tyranny, thus posing a threat to American security. Some neocons said that failure to take strong action would invite aggressive action by regimes around the world. For example, Elliott Abrams maintained that "[t]yrants in places from Tehran to Beijing will also be wondering about the cost of violating international law and threatening the peace and stability of neighbors." [2]

After fuming about the evil and grave danger of the Russian invasion of Crimea, the neocons were largely mum about Israel's failure to vote against the Russian action in the UN. Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard did not even mention Israel's abstention. [3] When queried by a reporter from the Times of Israel, Danielle Pletka, who is vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an email: "It doesn't affect support for the democratic state of Israel among American friends. That's not the way it works. They're an independent country, and have the right to be foolish; I don't think anyone devotes even a minute to considering the Israeli position on Ukraine." [4]

Although generally ignored by the American mainstream media, Israeli-Russian relations have been improving for some time despite Russia's support for Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians. [5] The improvement stems in part from the fact that both countries have a common interest in opposing Islamic terrorism. Unlike the United States and Western Europe, Israel fully supported Putin's ruthless suppression of the Chechen rebels. It was Putin's role in the Second Chechen War, which he launched on September 30, 1999, when serving as prime minister, that gave him the favorable publicity to be elected president. [6]

Since becoming president in March 2000, Putin has worked for better relations with Israel. Meetings and telephone conversations between Russian and Israeli officials have taken place on a regular basis. In 2005, Putin became the first Russian (or Soviet) head of state to visit Israel; he received a very friendly welcome from Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who called him "a friend of the state of Israel," and from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said that Putin was "among brothers." Though the meeting did not iron out difficulties involving Russia's support for Israel's enemies — which largely continue through the present — the visit was a landmark in the development of improved relations between the two countries. [7]

Putin returned to Israel in 2012 to meet with Israeli leaders and inaugurate a monument to the Soviet Army for its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. In his dedication speech, Putin called the Holocaust "the darkest, most shameful chapter in human history" and lauded the Soviet Army for acting to "smash the head of the Nazi monster and [allow] all nations to survive." [8] His words went over quite well with Israelis, but the portrayal of the Red Army as liberators would require substantial caveats for most Eastern Europeans.

It should also be mentioned that Putin's Russia has treated Russian Jews very favorably, especially in contrast to the way they were treated in the Soviet Union from the latter part of the Stalinist era. In late 2012, what is purported to be the largest Jewish history museum in the world opened in Moscow — the first Jewish museum to exist in Russia for more than 60 years. Its construction was funded by oligarchs close to Putin who himself personally donated one month of his salary.

It is true that many of the oligarchs who dominated Russia during the Yeltsin era were Jewish, and Putin did remove a number of them from their positions of power. Some fled the country or served jail sentences, or did both; and a few died in questionable circumstances. However, those Jewish oligarchs were removed because of their opposition to Putin rather than their Jewish ethnicity. Many Jewish oligarchs who have supported Putin have continued to flourish, and a high number of new super-wealthy Jews have emerged under Putin's rule. Leading ones include Alexei Miller, Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Potanin, Roman Abramovich, Michael Fridman (or Friedman), Moshe Kantor, Lev Leviev, Viktor Vekselberg, and Arkadi and Boris Rotenberg (Putin's judo sparring partners in his youth). Konstanty Gebert, a noted Polish journalist of Jewish ethnicity, [9] writes in Momentum Magazine, "In fact, with the partial exception of his immediate predecessor, the hapless Boris Yeltsin, Putin is the only leader in modern Russian history who seems to have no apparent problem with Jews being Jews and Russians simultaneously." [10]

In April 2014, writing in the on-line Jerusalem Post, Amotz Asa-El described the Russo-Israeli relationship thus: "Not only are relations between Jerusalem and Moscow normal, in many ways they are even warm. Traffic between the two countries is free and hectic, Russia has become Israel's major oil supplier, it is a potentially deep destination for Israeli exports, and the two countries are in the process of finalizing a free-trade agreement." [11]

Asa-El asserted that it is simply not in Israel's interest to do anything that would harm those good relations that took so long to establish. Israel, he noted, has to consider the regional power factor: "The past three years' upheaval across the Arab world has for now resulted in increased Russian presence and diminishing American prestige." Confronted with "such a Russian comeback, Israel would be foolhardy to squander its hard-earned relations with post-Communist Russia."

Asa-El observed also that there is no reason for Israel to take part in "distant East European squabbles" that don't really concern Israel's interests. "Neutrality in this conflict," he concluded, "seems for now Israel's only plausible choice, and Jerusalem apparently expected Washington to understand this, as indeed does the Israeli opposition, where no one has so far attacked this policy." [12]

Now those are very justifiable reasons for Israel not to become involved in Eastern European affairs; in fact, they should be a guide for the United States as well and should pertain to relations with Israel and the Middle East as well as with the rest of the world. If Washington were to follow Israel's wise policy, it would certainly be much less supportive of Israel, since its current unwavering support of the Jewish state harms its relationship with the rest of the Middle East, ensnares it in unnecessary wars, and makes it a leading target for Islamic terrorists.

It is also the case, however, that Israel's position is not simply one of non-involvement but is actually antithetical to current U.S. policy. Both Russia and Israel are interested in expanding their mutual trade. Russia is especially interested in acquiring Israeli technology; Israel, in turn, is interested in being a world leader in advanced technology — especially that which has military applicability. For example, Israel has been the world's largest exporter of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles — drones), many of which have military applications. [13] At the same time, Israel would like to increase its Russian imports, which largely consist of raw materials — oil and oil products, natural gas, metals, wood and wood products. [14] The sanctions that the United States and Europe have imposed on Russia have given Israel the opportunity to expand its trade with Russia, and the two nations are planning a "free-trade" agreement — actually, Israel would make that agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), of which Russia is the leading country. (The EAEU comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and came into existence on January 1, 2015.) [15]

More needs to be said about Israel's sale of (unarmed) drones to Russia, which began in 2010 and continued after the conflict began in Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. By providing weapons and even American troops to countries on Russia's border, the United States is essentially defining Russia as an enemy — and the neocons take a very hard line on that issue — so Israel, from this perspective, is equipping America's enemy.

By the first decade of the 21st century, the Russian army had fallen far behind the West in terms of high technology; Russia had greatly cut spending on its military in the 1990s. UAVs require miniaturized components, which had always been a challenge for Soviet industry. If it were not to become a second-rate power, the Russian army needed to modernize. In 2012, David Axe wrote in Wired magazine that Russia was twenty years behind the United States in drone technology and that it lagged not only behind the United States in this area but also behind many other First World militaries. Its weakness was made manifest in its 2008 war with Georgia, which was equipped with Israeli-made drones. [16] Patrick Hilsman, a freelance journalist, writes in the Middle East Eye: "Russia's disadvantage in UAV technology was highlighted after Georgian forces were able to inflict surprisingly high casualties against the invading Russians in 2008." [17]

Hilsman underscores the critical military significance for Russia of Israeli technology. "The push to modernise Russia's air force," he observes, "lead [sic] to the 2010 deal on Israeli and Russia military cooperation. The deal signed between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the Russian government through Oboronprom, a Russian defence company, was much more than an arms sale, and involved direct military cooperation with Israel training at least 50 Russian officers on UAV operations in Tel-Aviv."

Hilsman adds: "Most interestingly, IAI and Oboronprom agreed to jointly produce UAVs inside Russia. Many of Russia's new UAVs are a direct result of the programme. Earlier this year [2015], Ukrainian forces shot down and released photos of the Russian version of an IAI Searcher drone which was presumably acquired or built as part of the 2010 deal."

While Russia is a new entrant in developing sophisticated drones, it supposedly has recently taken the lead in developing a hydrogen-powered drone that is able to stay aloft far longer than previous types. So in one important respect, Russia, as a result of help from Israel, has developed drones that are superior to those the United States possesses. [18]

What did Israel expect to gain from selling drones to Russia and contributing to its ability to manufacture drones? Obviously, it wanted to increase its exports and imports of key items. Furthermore, Israel likely wants to use the sale of UAVs as leverage to persuade Russia to curtail its provision of sophisticated military hardware to Iran and Syria. As Jane's Defence Weekly stated: "It is reasonable to argue that Israel viewed UAV sales and joint military technology activity as a means of bringing influence to bear on Moscow." [19]

Those few pro-Israel observers who openly acknowledge the Israel-Russia rapprochement argue, basically, that the alleged retrenchment of the United States from the Middle East — especially in its unwillingness to remove Syria's Bashar Assad and its purported appeasement of Iran in the nuclear agreement — has forced Israel to come to terms with the new dominant power in the Middle East, Russia. [20]

There is also an energy factor in the growing Israel-Russia cooperation. Russia would like to participate in the development and exploitation of the massive offshore Tamar and Leviathan natural-gas fields, which were recently discovered in Israeli waters. The gas needs to be efficiently extracted and transported to markets, and Russia has expressed interest in performing those tasks through its state-controlled company Gazprom (the Russian government holds a 50.1 percent interest). Moscow would like not only to profit from the venture but also to prevent competition with its own gas sales to Europe. [21] From the Israeli perspective, Gazprom has the technical and financial ability to develop the gas reservoirs and market the gas to customers. [22]

Russian participation in Israel's gas industry would give Israel leverage over Russia to induce it to protect Israeli interests. In fact, Russia's very presence could play a direct role in maintaining the safety and security of Israel's gas infrastructure, preventing possible attacks by Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah. [23]

While Israel has a definite rationale for cozying up to Russia, it still seems odd that America's supposed best ally is acting contrary to American foreign policy while it receives more foreign aid from the United States than any other country — including cutting-edge military technology — as well as guarantees of military protection, and also can rely on Washington to veto every measure brought up in the UN Security Council that Israel deems to be contrary to its interests. American military aid to Israel is intended to provide Israel with what is termed a "qualitative military edge" in conventional warfare over its enemies even if they joined together. And in any possible war, Israeli damage and casualties would be minimal. [24] Furthermore, the United States actively works to guarantee a regional nuclear monopoly for Israel. In short, the United States guarantees that Israel will remain, by far, the dominant military power in the Middle East. [25]

Although Israel has been involved in selling UAVs to Russia, which can be used for military purposes, Israel apparently is not transferring actual American military technology to Russia, as was the case in its dealings with China. However, American aid does indirectly facilitate the Israeli-Russian relationship. Hilsman writes:

U.S. aid comprises a small percentage of Israel's economy, but it frees up a significant amount of resources for research and development. IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) is at least partially subsidized by the U.S. government, which provided funding for the development of the Iron Dome missile defence system.

American officials have often expressed concern over the proliferation of Israeli technology to third parties, and the Israeli Russian UAV program puts the American government in an especially awkward position. [26]

While Israel is working at cross-purposes with the United States, virtually nothing about it gets mentioned in the American mainstream media. As pointed out earlier, Israel, of course, is acting not foolishly but in its own interests. Given the power of the Israel lobby in the United States, the pressure on Israel to cater to American foreign-policy goals is minimal.

In contrast, despite a fairly substantial Jewish population in Russia and the existence of Jews with considerable wealth, no equivalent Israel lobby exists there. Thus, to gain favor from Russia, it is necessary for Israel to reciprocate diplomatically. Russia is not going to give up its support for its existing Middle East allies, Syria and Iran, but it is likely willing to limit its support for them in order to receive benefits from Israel. Moreover, Iran and Assad's Syria have little bargaining power vis-à-vis Russia because they have no other major power on which to rely for comparable military assistance. [27]

But why do the neocons take a position hostile to Russia? For one thing, they not only concern themselves with advancing Israel but pursue other interests as well, though the welfare of Israel is primary. One goal, pointed out by numerous commentators, is strengthening support for democracy throughout the world; the neocons are thus described as neo-Wilsonians. (But as Paul Gottfried has accurately observed, this democracy may not always mean majority rule or freedom of speech but rather represent what he terms "managerial democracy," which is the ideology of modern American liberalism. [28])

The neocons are hostile to Russia for a number of reasons, which include Putin's authoritarian rule; his support for traditional values such as state-supported Russian Orthodoxy, heterosexuality over homosexuality, and raising the Russian-ethnic birth rate; his opposition to American globalism and regime change; and his aid to Israel's enemies.

Though it is speculative, I would like to advance one explanation that aligns the neocon position on Russia with Israel's interests. By generating greater U.S. hostility toward Russia, the neocons push the U.S. government to place more sophisticated weaponry on Russia's borders, which, in turn, causes Russia to seek more high technology with military applications from Israel. The more that Russia depended on Israeli high tech, the more leverage Israel would have over Russia. Israel would then be in a position to pressure Russia to restrain its allies, Iran and Syria, from taking belligerent actions against Israel. (That, in turn, would result in Iran and Syria restraining Hezbollah.)

Undoubtedly, America's unconditional support for Israel and its simultaneous hostile approach toward Russia could not co-exist if there existed, in the mainstream, a logical discussion of Israel's aid to Russia. If Putin were a diabolical threat to the West, as claimed by the neocons and much of the mainstream, how could a truly good country, as Israel is purported to be, be friendly toward Russia to the extent of strengthening its military power? Given the mainstream media's depiction of Putin's Russia as Hitlerian, it would be the equivalent of a country voluntarily (sans military pressure) arming Nazi Germany during World War II. [29]

It follows that if Israel wants to befriend and aid a dangerous enemy of America and the West, it is not the ideal ally it is purported to be, and the United States should curtail its support for it. On the other hand, if Israel is really a stellar country, then Russia must not be such an evil and dangerous one, and Washington should cease treating it as an enemy. That would be the logical approach, but one can be assured that in the mainstream discourse, it is not logic but doublethink that ineluctably prevails in discussions about Israel. Ω

August 27, 2016

Published in 2016 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2016 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.

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1. Raphael Ahren, "Jerusalem insistently mum on Crimea referendum," The Times of Israel, March 17, 2014.

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2. Elliott Abrams, "How We Can Make Putin Pay, and Why We Must," National Review, March 3, 2014.

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3. Michael Brendan Dougherty, "Israel and Russia are getting along. Have the neocons noticed?," The Week, April 16, 2014.

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4. Ron Kampeas, "On Ukraine, Israel and neoconservatives not on the same page," The Times of Israel, April 11, 2014.

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5. Fact Sheet Russia-Israel Relations, IsraelSeen.com, July 30, 2010.

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6. Mark N. Katz, "Putin's Pro-Israel Policy," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, pp. 51-59; and Andrew Foxall, "Chechnya, Russia's Forgotten War," World Affairs, undated.

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7. Josh Cohen, "Vladimir Putin is the closest thing to a friend Israel has ever had in Moscow," Reuters, January 14, 2016; Anna Borshchevskaya, "The Maturing of Israeli-Russian Relations," The Washington Institute, Spring 2016.

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8. Jonathan Lis, "Putin Arrives in Israel to Discuss West's Standoff with Iran," Haaretz, June 25, 2012.

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9. Gebert was a noted dissident during Communist rule in Poland.

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10. Konstanty Gebert, "Putin's Jews," Moment Magazine, November-December 2015.

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11. Amotz Asa-El, "Can Israel be neutral on Ukraine?," Jerusalem Post, April 17, 2014.

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12. Amotz Asa-El, "Can Israel be neutral on Ukraine?," Jerusalem Post, April 17, 2014.

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13. "Russia's Israeli UAV Deals: Quid Pro Quo?" Defense Industry Daily, February 5, 2014; Gili Cohen, "Israel is world's largest exporter of drones, study finds," Haaretz, May 19, 2013.

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14. Fred Weir, "Israel and Russia: Trade and restive Arab world outweigh differences on Iran," Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2012.

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15. "Eurasian Economic Union May Sign Free Trade Deal with Israel in 2017," Sputnik News, May 19, 2016.

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16. David Axe, "Russian Drones Lag U.S. Models by 20 Years," Wired, August 6, 2012.

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17. Patrick Hilsman, "ANALYSIS: Drone deals heighten military ties between Israel and Russia," Middle East Eye, October 4, 2015.

Hilsman is a New York native who reports on Syria and the Middle East. According to Wikipedia, "The Middle East Eye is an online news portal covering events in the Middle East and which has been cited by major media publications."

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18. Ignat Borisov, "Russian Drones Drone On Longer Than Others," Russia Insider, May 21, 2016.

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19. "IAI delivers 12 UAVs to Russia in key deal," UPI, January 17, 2011.

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20. Those commentators are found largely outside the major media.

Giancarlo Elia Valori, "Russia and Israel Improving Relations: A Geostrategic Analysis," Modern Diplomacy, June 17, 2016.

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21. Josh Cohen, "Why Russia may be a smart business partner for Israel," Reuters, February 23, 2016.

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22. Hedy Cohen, "Russia wants share in Israeli gas," Globes, April 24, 2016.

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23. Josh Cohen, "Why Russia may be a smart business partner for Israel" Reuters, February 23, 2016; and Giancarlo Elia Valori, "Russia and Israel Improving Relations: A Geostrategic Analysis," Modern Diplomacy, June 17, 2016.

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24. Jeremy M. Sharp, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, Congressional Research Service, June 10, 2015.

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25. Jeremy M. Sharp, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, Congressional Research Service, June 10, 2015.

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26. Patrick Hilsman, "ANALYSIS: Drone deals heighten military ties between Israel and Russia," Middle East Eye, October 4, 2015.

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27. China could provide such aid but in recent years has been unwilling to do so. See Joel Wuthrow, "Are Chinese Arms About to Flood into Iran?," National Interest, January 13, 2016.

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28. Paul Gottfried, ;"Power Is Manipulating the Masses," Humanitas, 15:1 (2002), pp. 96-99; and Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

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29. Switzerland was apparently providing military aid to Nazi Germany during World War II, provoking the United States to threaten a full boycott of the country. Switzerland, however, was surrounded on all sides by Germany and its allies, and had a tiny population. Despite its mountains and preparations to resist, it faced the likelihood of conquest and destruction, and needed to placate Germany to some degree in order to preserve its existence. Israel does not have that same excuse today, yet Jewish groups found fault with Switzlerland's unwillingness to sacrifice its existence to combat Hitler. See "Spat with Switzerland Persists; Letter Reveals Nazi Collaboration," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 13, 1997.

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