Israel rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin and a host of Russian dignitaries this week, showing a desire by both parties to repair strained ties between the two countries. Israel has good reason to be open to strengthening its relationship with Russia. A long series of diplomatic failures in regard to the “Arab Spring” by the Obama administration, and a conspicuous lack of a visit to Israel since Obama’s inauguration, have placed Israel in an increasingly tenuous and isolated position as America’s influence wanes in the region. It is a strategic vacuum that Putin would like to fill.
And while President Obama made Prime Minister Netanyahu come and go through a White House side door and would not deign to have a meal with him, President Putin came to Bibi’s door bearing gifts.
Foremost on the minds of Israelis during Putin’s visit were the Iranian nuclear program and the ever widening sphere of the Syrian civil war. And though no specific agreements were reached on these issues, President Putin did address them, saying, "From my experience, one must think about the consequences of an act before doing it. Look what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. With regard to Syria, one must think carefully whether the opposition that will rise to power will be what the West wants it to be, or whether it will end up being totally the opposite." Regarding Israel in particular he said, "The region in which Israel sits greatly influences the feelings of the entire international community. Russia has a national interest in assuring peace and tranquility for Israel."
While Putin’s words will be considered by many to be empty platitudes on par with Obama’s election year rhetoric, nothing says commitment like investment. President Putin’s gifts came in the form of a raft of Russian dignitaries and businessmen, seeking economic alliances in a variety of areas. Areas of Israeli expertise of particular interest to the Russians were nanotechnology, aerospace (Israel makes some nifty miniature satellites), agriculture and water treatment. But the most substantial and strategic area of discussion was energy. Russia’s state owned Gazprom, the world’s largest extractor of natural gas, has offered a strategic alliance to develop Israel’s offshore gas fields.
The 2009-10 discovery of two large fields containing a combined estimated 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas changed Israel’s energy prospects almost overnight. In addition, a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey study estimated that the Levant Basin off the coast of Israel could hold 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil, 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas and 5 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. The strategic importance of these fields has increased dramatically since Egypt’s April decision to stop supplying Israel with natural gas. And the economic boon that would come with being a net exporter of energy would provide a huge boost to Israel’s already bustling economy.
However, development of these resources by Israel has been strongly opposed by Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and perhaps most importantly by Iran through Hezbollah. Iran has given the terrorist organization teeth to oppose Israel on the issue in the form of C-802 anti-ship missiles and highly trained SEAL type commando units. Both of which would be a threat to Israeli tankers and offshore gas platforms. Russian involvement in developing these resources would, by itself, go a long way to solving these issues and preventing a conflict over them—something that is very much a possibility, though the Syrian civil war has distracted attention from the issue temporarily.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a Russian immigrant said, "With Putin as president of Russia, the world is safer and more stable. In Israel, we will exert all efforts to strengthen our relations with Russia. Putin is a model leader." Perhaps overly high praise for someone with the domestic issues Putin is dealing with, and it is easy to over-emphasize the importance of one 24 hour visit. But Israel and Russia’s shared struggles with fanatical Islam give them a strong point of mutual sympathy. And an invested Russia is a committed Russia, perhaps a more honest message of solidarity than any other.
Obama’s confused policies regarding the “Arab Spring” and his cool attitude towards Israel have left a vacuum of influence in the Middle-East and coterie with Israel that Putin is only too eager to fill, and unfortunately for the U.S., this visit was a good first step.