Israel's Relations with Russia and the United States: What are the Expectations?

Israel has always aspired to have as much maneuverability in its foreign policy as possible; and these days even more. Serious breakthroughs can be seen in Israel's outreach in Asia, particularly in the case of a tacit strategic alliance with India.

Israel, particularly Netanyahu's Israel, is constantly being rebuffed by the Europeans, and is now in a state of crisis with the Obama administration. It will therefore maintain its neutral position on the Ukraine crisis, and will not support sanctions against Russia.

A potential victim of sanctions itself, Israel will not likely support the idea of sanctions (with the possible exception of sanctions against Iran which questions its existence). This is not the first time that Israel finds itself on the same side as Russia. Ariel Sharon opposed the international coalition attacks against Serbia. In other words, Israel understands the dilemmas facing Russia because it believes that its predicament is not very different than Russia’s.

In both cases, the international community is at odds with Russia for conducting policies that are interpreted as a violation of international standards. Europe sees Israel and Russia as occupying authorities that refuse to give up their territorial gains, and thus may be subject to both sanctions and intervention in their internal affairs. Friendly relations with Russia are an important asset for Netanyahu's Israel; but he will find it increasingly difficult to reconcile this with the need to mend his broken relations with the Obama administration.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked about the need to resume the work of the Middle East Four. The Four has so far been almost the exclusive concern of America. Israel is not particularly happy with the involvement of the UN, Russia or the EU. But if one of these, say Russia, can become an advocate for some core Israeli interests in the peace process, then Israel would obviously change its position.

I personally believe that the Four should be given a greater role because I do not believe in the capacity of the U.S. to deliver on the peace process. Over 20 years of American diplomacy has led us nowhere. The U.S. suffers from some serious handicaps when it comes to using the necessary leverage on Israel. Israel is a matter of domestic American politics; it has a particularly strong resonance in Congress and among wide sectors of American public opinion. If the questions of North Korea require the Six Party Talks, and the Iran nuclear issue the P5+1, why should the Palestinian problem be the exclusive domain of America’s failing peace diplomacy? I have maintained for some time that one should discard the notion that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can emerge from direct negotiations between the parties with the help of American mediation that tends to treat the negotiations and the authority as two distinct categories. The reluctance of the U.S. to use its leverage (on both sides) makes its mediation ineffective and surprisingly naive.

That the U.S has been ineffective in its peace diplomacy has no relation with the fact that we are witnessing a distancing between these two allies. It has rather to do with the built-in weaknesses of American foreign policy when it comes to questions related to Israel. I would not be surprised, however, that should Netanyahu be re-elected, we will see a tougher attitude by the Obama administration towards Israel on issue such as the use of the American veto in the Security Council, for example.

Netanyahu's forthcoming speech in Congress represents one of the lowest moments in Israel's relations with the U.S. The White House can no longer tolerate a man who campaigned against the re-election of Obama, aligned himself with his Republican rivals and turned Israel from a bi-partisan issue into a major divisive issue in the American system.

Support for Israel is still very high among the American public and in Congress. But Netanyahu is undermining this. My assessment is that the Americans will increase their pressure on Netanyahu if he is elected, but they will not deviate from the fundamentally supportive attitude toward Israel's vital concerns. And even if Netanyahu is re-elected, but he is forced to form a national unity government with the center-left, we could see a substantial reduction of tensions between these allies. A different story will evolve if Netanyahu forms a radically right wing government. Israel would then have an extremely difficult time in Washington.

Generally, my view is that the current crisis is circumstantial. But this does not diminish Israel's drive to look for additional allies elsewhere, particularly in Asia where the Palestinian problem does not resonate with the same force it does in the West.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.