What had initially started as co-ordination between Russian and Israeli forces to avoid any clash over the Syrian airspace is now expanding into a sort of strategic alliance.
In the third week of April, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached Moscow to discuss with Putin the state of crisis in Syria.
While this was one of the many crucial issues reportedly discussed in the closed-door meeting, what stands out is the strong possibility of Russia’s Gazprom developing Israel’s Leviathan gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean — a development that, if materialized, will have enormous implications for the future of the Middle East as it can, to a considerable extent, alter erstwhile regional alignments.
Russia’s tilt towards Israel, many believe, is happening at a time when Iran is equally tilting towards the West to re-capture the markets it had previously lost to its competitor, Saudi Arabia. As such, were Russia and Israel to strike a deal to develop the Leviathan, it would have enormous geopolitical implications not only for Iran but also for Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S.
On the one hand, Russia’s measured distance from Iran would allow Saudi Arabia to reach Moscow too. Troubled as relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia currently are, Riyadh might find in it a good opportunity to balance its relations with Russia and the U.S. On the other hand, Iran might find in it a justifiable excuse to increase its tilt towards the West.
Russian investment in Israel would certainly make Israel self-sufficient in its energy needs for the first time since 1948 — an economic condition that Israeli policy makers would not hesitate to translate into military strength and thereby achieve an advantage against Iran.
While Israeli media largely focused on the question of Russia-Israel co-ordination in Syria, Russian state media did mention that both leaders did discuss the potential role of Russia’s state-owned Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas producer and marketer, as a possible stakeholder in Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field.
Needless to say, Russian involvement in Israel would minimize the risk of Iran or Hezbollah attacking these instalments. Israel’s interest in taking Gazprom on board therefore has clear strategic implications too. Needless to say, Netanyahu did seek, during his visit, Russian assurance against Hezbollah’s possible anti-Israel operations from Syria in the wake of Russia’s partial withdrawal.
It is not that Russia has suddenly discovered some interest in developing its relations with Israel. While the current attention Russia is paying certainly has regional dimension, the very presence of more than one million ethnic Russians in Israel, including one minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet also warrant stronger and multi-dimensional relations between the two countries and indicate the potential to develop relations independently of Russia’s and Israel’s with Iran and the U.S. respectively.
The ground work for Netanyahu’s April visit was, however, actually prepared during Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to Russia in March. This visit had taken place due to Putin’s invitation to the Israeli president, and was aimed at taking Israel into confidence over Russian withdrawal from Syria. It is important to note that the Israeli President had to cancel his scheduled visit to Australia to go to Russia. Equally important is the fact this visit had Netanyahu’s blessings too.
Such Russian ‘deep’ interest in developing relations with Israel has another dimension too. While the U.S. wants reconciliation between Israel and Turkey and pave the way for the sale of Israeli gas and weapons to Turkey, Russian deal with Israel would help Russia pre-empt the Washington backed deal. It is important for Russia because if such a deal is to take place, it would certainly help Turkey considerably reduce its dependence on Russian-supplied gas.
The deal taking place between Russia and Israel, therefore, has two sub-deals. For Israel, Russia would provide security against Iran-backed Hezbollah; for Russia, Israel would walk away from the Washington backed gas deal with Turkey. This, in turn, would help Russia maintain its leverage over Turkey.
On the other hand, the reason for Israel not ‘willing’ enough to enter into a Washington-backed deal with Turkey, notwithstanding that Israel would benefit from it by selling Turkey weapons, is the currently fractured state of relations between Netanyahu and Obama. Recent efforts by Netanyahu to get US President Obama to back a permanent Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights reportedly fell on deaf ears. It is for this reason that the ‘security’ of Golan Heights was also one of the issues discussed during the March and April visits of Israeli President and Prime Minister to Russia.
As far as the Russian position is concerned, what has allowed Russia to diplomatically ‘disrupt’ Israel-Turkey gas deal is that both Israel and Turkey have failed to come up with a concrete deal, or its basic framework even. The reason for this is the support, Israeli officials believe, Turkey continues to provide to Hamas.
The Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said a few times that Israel has its own red lines, which included the shutdown of Hamas command post in Turkey from which terror activities against Israel were ordered, according to Israel. His stance probably gave voice to the Israeli military establishment that prefers maintaining military cooperation with Russia to potential Israeli gas sales to Turkey if they hurt Russian interests and anger Putin.
What is, therefore, emerging is a complex real politik negotiation between Putin and Netanyahu of the highest geopolitical stakes for the entire Middle East and beyond. Therefore, if Russia and Israel enter into a deal, it could portend a major new step in Putin’s energy geopolitics in the Middle East, one which could give Washington a major defeat in its increasingly inept moves to control the world’s center of oil and gas.
While the deals are still in the offing, it cannot be gainsaid that Russia-Israel deal would provide the latter a much sought-after permanent foothold in the Middle East.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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