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Russia-Israel: With Gaza War, A Complicated Relationship Gets More Complicated

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in January 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in January 2020.

Less than three weeks after Hamas's brutal attack on Israel, leaders of the radical group -- designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU -- showed up in Moscow for talks with Russian officials.

For many in the West, not least in Israel itself, the Hamas delegation's visit was a pointed thumb in the eye of the relatives of the victims, most of them civilians, and of a reeling government. For close watchers of Russian policy, however, it wasn't very surprising, a reflection of Moscow's knotty approach to the messy snarl of Middle East politics.

And then there's Russia's own troubled history with anti-Semitism, which burst into the open on October 29 in the North Caucasus city of Makhachkala, where a violent mob tried to attack an airliner arriving from Tel Aviv, seeking out Jewish passengers.

Never great, the Kremlin's relations with Israel now stand to get even more complicated in the wake of the October 7 attack and the unfolding Israeli ground war in Gaza, where the death toll among Palestinian civilians continues to rise.

It's unlikely that the mob violence at the Makhachkala airport was state orchestrated, says Ian Lesser, executive director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund and an expert on European and Middle Eastern security affairs. "That said, it's clearly showed there's a reservoir of deep ill-will and anti-Semitism in Russia, especially in those regions that are majority Muslim, though not just, and maybe right now Russia finds it convenient to allow a bit of that," he said.

"Anti-Semitism was never gone in Russia," said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute focusing on Russia's policy toward the Middle East. "It always sort of periodically reared its ugly head. It's been buried underneath the surface, but it's not the first time Russia has seen an outburst of anti-Semitic activity, and not just in this region."

Added to the wider context of roiling Middle East, what it means is that Russia's ties with Israel are changing in what may be a dramatic fashion.

"Israel has a complicated relationship with Russia. That's not a secret and it's not new," said Eylon Levy, a spokesman for the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, Israel's divisive and longest-serving prime minister, has cultivated closer ties with Vladimir Putin, Russia's longest-serving president -- and Putin has courted Israel in his efforts to increase Russia's regional clout. In his 2022 memoir, Netanyahu praised Putin's intellect, and thanked him for his policies in support of Jews.

But those relations have been vexed by Moscow's growing economic and military ties with countries like Iran, which has vowed to destroy Israel, and Syria, which is known to harbor and facilitate groups that are hostile to Israel.

In Syria, Russia has a naval port and other military infrastructure that it has used not only to bolster Bashar al-Assad's regime but also to maintain a naval presence in the Mediterranean and badger U.S. forces that are deployed in northeastern Syria, fighting alongside Kurdish militias.

Israel and Russia have managed to avoid conflict even as Israel's air forces have routinely targeted Syrian sites, including Damascus's airport, where weapons shipments and other supplies for the Iranian-backed Hizballah militia have been known to transit.

On October 30, Israeli warplanes bombed a Syrian base in the southern Daraa Province. And days earlier, Israeli jets struck an ammunition depot at another Syrian base, where Hizballah fighters and officers reported to be Iranian were working alongside Syrian troops.

"For many years, Israel had a mechanism of coordinating with the Russian military presence inside Syria as we attack targets inside that country, Iran trying to send advanced weapons to terrorists in the north. And it's important not to get our wires crossed," Levy said.

'On The Israeli Side, I Think This Will Not Go Without Notice'

Moscow's relationship with Tehran is even more problematic to Israel.

Russia has played a key role in helping Iran develop its nuclear capabilities, a lucrative source of revenue for the state-run atomic-energy corporation Rosatom. Both Moscow and Tehran say the efforts have been geared solely at peaceful uses of nuclear power -- electricity generation -- though that hasn't allayed Israel's fear, nor that of some in the United States.

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine, however, fundamentally changed the relationship, the European Council for Foreign Relations said in a report published in September. "The two countries have increased their efforts to jointly resist Western sanctions and political isolation. Iran also continues to expand its nuclear program at alarming levels, with no opposition from Moscow," the report's authors, Ellie Geranmayeh and Nicole Grajewski, wrote.

"Tehran's military contribution to Russia's war effort has made an enormous difference to Russia's ability to persevere in a difficult conflict. Iran, once a secondary player, is now one of Russia's most significant collaborators in the war in Ukraine," they added.

Above all, Russia has leaned heavily on Iran to expand its drone capabilities, now deploying thousands of kamikaze or surveillance drones to target Ukrainian forces, something Ukraine's top commander nodded to in an essay published last week in The Economist.

Unconfirmed Western intelligence reports that Hizballah could receive Russian antiaircraft systems add further fuel to the fire.

None of this has gone unnoticed in Israel.

"Over the last few years, we've been deeply concerned by what Iran has been supplying to Russia, for example, we have evidence that Iranian drones have been used to perpetrate atrocities on the innocent people of Ukraine, and that is a relationship that is clearly of very deep concern to us," Levy told RFE/RL.

Still, Israel has been restrained in its criticism of Russia over the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and has resisted sending weaponry or critical equipment to help Ukrainian forces.

To what extent the Daghestan airport incident reflects broader societal problems or negative attitudes toward Jews is unclear. But there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric from Russian politicians in recent years, including some from Putin himself.

Russian authorities last year moved to shutter the Russian operations of the Jewish Agency, an official Israeli organization that helps Jews in Russia, and around the former Soviet Union, emigrate to the United States.

Some Israelis saw the shutdown as punishment for Israel's stance on the Ukraine war and for criticism by then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

And Then There's Hamas

The Palestinian militant group -- designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union -- has sent several delegations to Moscow over the years, including days after the October 7 attack on Israel as well as before that, in March.

The March meeting, as described in a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, touched on Russia's "unchanged position in support of a just solution to the Palestinian problem."

And Moscow has declined to designate Hamas a terrorist group.

For its part, Israel condemned Moscow for hosting the Hamas delegation and for a separate visit from an Iranian deputy foreign minister.

"The rapprochement with Hamas is consistent with a historical pattern," Milan Czerny and Dan Storyev wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "During the Cold War, Moscow armed and otherwise supported Palestinian militants, including those engaged in terrorism, continuing to do so even at the height of détente."

Still, they said, Russia was unlikely to qualitatively increase its support for Hamas beyond mere rhetoric. "The reality is that, for Moscow, the crisis in the Middle East is an opportunity to pitch itself to the region and the wider Global South as a diplomatic partner," they said.

After Hamas's attack on Israel, Putin used his first public statement on the incident to lace into the United States, blaming Washington and asserting the attack was a "vivid example" of U.S. policy failures in the Middle East.

"I can only imagine that relations with Israel are going to worsen, much as Russia may have had a certain ambiguity, ambivalence in its relationship with Israel in the past, and wish to preserve that relationship for many reasons...the highly symbolic nature of this event, plus this crisis in Gaza, I think it's likely to be seen in Moscow as an opportunity to be exploited," Lesser said.

"On the Israeli side, I think this will not go without notice," he added.

"I think it has not been a cardinal break" in Russian-Israeli relations, Borshchevskaya told RFE/RL. "But there certainly has been a strain with far more intense criticism coming out of the Russian government than in the past, specifically against Israel's military actions in Gaza, and also Israel's air strikes in Syria.

"So what I think what we need to look for is: to what extent, how is Russia going to maintain a semblance of balance between relations with Israel and Hamas?" she said.

The wider question, experts say, is whether Russia will benefit from the turmoil in the Middle East, for example, by drawing attention away from the Kremlin's No. 1 foreign policy priority now: the war in Ukraine.

"The present situation creates challenges for Russia. I agree that there are challenges for Russia as well, but the benefits are greater," Borshchevskaya said. "I think Russia benefits precisely from chaos. And they are going to use the situation of chaos to further escalate with the United States and the West overall, whether directly or through proxies."

"So, I tend to be of a view that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks" for Moscow, she said.

The turmoil is "an unmitigated positive from the point of view of Moscow," Lesser said.

"There are very few negatives as far as Russia is concerned," he said. "Now, obviously, if the conflict were to escalate into a broader war in the Middle East, perhaps involving Iran and the United States, that would begin to raise issues that may be problematic even for Russia."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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