PUTIN'S VISIT WAS NOT ONLY TO ISRAEL
While Putin’s visit to Israel may have been historic, the question lingering over Putin’s tour is why it should have been made now. “Putin's very decision not to overlook this thus-far shunned destination on his journey to the region is in itself very welcome, a sign of hope and the breaking of a traditional Moscow foreign-policy mold,” wrote the The Jerusalem Post on 26 April. “This, nonetheless, begs a question about Putin's motives. Why is he veering from what had become Kremlin custom?” Its answer: a mix of Russian domestic and international realpolitik. Putin, a “master practitioner” of realpolitik, may want to regain Russia’s “historic influence” in the region, to “rebuild his reputation as a statesman after a string of foreign-policy disasters including the recent pro-Western popular uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan,” and to help reverse a downturn in relations with Washington by creating a “semblance of good ties with Jerusalem.”
By contrast, Ivan Safranchuk, from the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, sees the tour as a response to a downturn in relations with Israel itself. In his view, Russian policy towards Israel in the 1990s was determined by a tension between a business elite sympathetic to Israel – and, in some cases, with close personal and business ties there – and a “diplomatic and security apparatus” that “grew up on a pro-Arab, anti-Israel basis.” Yeltsin had to find a balance. In that context, Yeltsin’s private visit to Israel days after he left the presidency could be interpreted as a symbolic way of saying,"Now I am free and I can go.”
Safranchuk believes that the upswing in relations generated by a shared opposition to perceived Islamist terrorism ended in 2003 and that relations have been worsening ever since. In his view, the downward trend started when Israelis suspected that the Russian government's legal attack on the owner of the oil giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was an “anti-Jewish step.” Khodorkovsky has a partly Jewish background. The trend was then reinforced by “a growth in anti-Jewish activities in Russia,” and culminated when Russia indicated it intended to sell missiles to Syria. Israel’s response – asking for help from Washington and discussing the possibility of bombing Iran's Bushehr plant – prompted Putin to cancel the sale of long-range missiles and to arrange a visit to Israel, he suggests. Safranchuk says the decision to visit Israel was made in March, suggesting the tour was an “urgent” attempt “to stop … the negative trend in relations, at minimum” and “at maximum, to reverse this trend.”
And the result? “I think he did stop the downward trend, but whether he reversed the trend as such, I am not sure.”
Still, let us not forget that from 1967 to 1991 Soviet nuclear weapons were targeted to hit Israel. Moreover, many Russian analysts consider turning Israel to an outright enemy was a major strategic Soviet blunder and they do not wish to repeat it. In other words, we are back to the pre-1967 period and a long way to go.
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