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Israel and Russia: Trade and restive Arab world outweigh differences on Iran

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Israel, burgeoning technology cooperation and a shared concern about Islamic extremism seem to be overtaking a history of poor relations.

By Correspondent / June 25, 2012

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak after delivering their joint statements following their meeting in Jerusalem June 25.

Jim Hollander/REUTERS

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Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel today for a two-day visit that publicly emphasizes the dramatic reconciliation and galloping economic cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem. In private, it likely featured some harsh words between Mr. Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Kremlin's political support for Syria and Iran.

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Experts say that the geopolitical differences between Russia and Israel are not as deep as many people believe. With the exception of sharp disagreement over what to do about Iran's alleged drive for nuclear weapons, differences are greatly overshadowed by a growing array of commonalities.

Topping that list is a shared sense that Russia and Israel alone fully understand the menace of Islamist extremism. Israel believes it confronts extremism on a daily basis, and Putin sees it as a serious threat to Russia's territorial integrity emanating from the restive northern Caucasus region, whose population is mainly Sunni Muslim. Both feel increasingly isolated in the Middle East, with Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood president hinting that he might revise his country's treaty with Israel, and Russia facing unprecedented hostility from Turkey and the Arab world over its continued support of Syria's strongman Bashar al-Assad.

"The worse Russia's relations with the Arab world, the better they will be with Israel," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

"Russia now finds itself at odds with almost all the Arab countries over Syria, and this could be a long-term trend. Syria is the last Russian client state inherited from the Soviet Union, and it's probably not going to last. New rulers will be far more mistrustful of Russia, and if they are Islamists the feelings will be mutual. At least when they're talking about the threat of radical Islam, Putin will feel mentally very close with Netanyahu," he says.

Tourism, trade boost relationship

Putin's first stop after arriving in Israel today was the dedication of a monument to Soviet Red Army forces killed in World War II in Netanya. Putin told a crowd of about 600 people that the double-winged white dove erected by Israel "symbolizes the triumph of good and peace. May these values always serve as the basis for friendship between our nations."

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian narrative about World War II – that the Red Army liberated eastern Europe from Naziism – has been painfully challenged by many former allies whose new version of history sees the arrival of Soviet forces as the beginning of a new occupation.

"Israel is one of the few countries in the world that fully backs the Russian view on World War II, so for Putin the symbolism here is very important," says Dmitry Maryasis, an expert with the Israeli Studies Department of the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The role of the Red Army in liberating Europe is not often celebrated these days, so Russians will receive this signal very warmly."

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