There is no reason to become overly excited about the honor Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was accorded on his visit over the weekend in Russia. Nothing there was personal: Bennett received a proper reception, exactly like his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Not because of his jovial personality but because of Israel’s standing in the region. Russia needs Israel, for its own purposes, almost as much as Israel needs Russia.
The interaction is not between equals, of course. Russia, even when its economic weakness distances it from the days of the Soviet Union’s international power, is still a world power. In its September 2015 decision to intervene militarily to benefit President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, it settled down, strategically speaking, in Israel’s backyard. When you have a Russian bear in the neighborhood you tread carefully. That’s just what Israel is doing.
Even when Bennett praises President Vladimir Putin as a great friend of the Jewish people, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Putin does what’s good for Putin. It would be best if the enthusiasm over the warm reception at Sochi, including the somewhat childish anecdotes Bennett and Minister Zeev Elkin shared at the government meeting, not forget that Putin is a tyrant who methodically crushes opponents of his country’s regime and who was a partner to horrific war crimes in Syria. Israel needs to coordinate some of its actions with him because that’s what reality objectively requires. It has nothing to do with love.
Even when Putin lavished friendship on Netanyahu, he didn’t meet some of his obligations in Syria. In the summer of 2018, Russia and the United States agreed to an arrangement that would allow Assad’s regime, with Russia’s help, to retake control of southern Syria. Israel, as a secondary partner in the arrangement, stopped its humanitarian support for the Sunni rebels over its border in the Golan Heights. Some of the armed rebels surrendered; others moved, as agreed, to the Idlib enclave in northern Syria. Russia, in exchange, promised Israel quiet along the border and to move all forces associated with Iran 60 or 80 kilometers from its borders (the versions change). This never happened. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah activists and their associated militias continue to act near the Israeli border.
This is the background to the message Israel sent, according to the Arab media, by assassinating the former member of the Syrian Parliament in the Syrian Golan, about 10 days ago. According to the reports, the man was active on behalf of the Iranians in the area. In addition, two aerial strikes were carried out in eastern Syria. It seems that Bennett wanted to convey to Putin, on the eve of their meeting, Israel’s determination to uproot Iranian military involvement in eastern Syria.
The Israeli move won’t necessarily bother Putin, who is competing with the Iranians for influence over the Assad regime. However, he wants to ensure that Israel does not accidentally harm Russian soldiers or bases. From the summit in Sochi came declarations from both sides about tightening coordination with regard to assaults.
Along with the assaults in the framework of the so-called battle between the wars, Israel leaked information about renewed preparations by the air force to attack nuclear sites in Iran. This comes in conjunction with the difficulties in renewing negotiations between Iran and the world powers toward a nuclear agreement, and the growing realization that Tehran is taking advantage of the time to move ahead with uranium enrichment. The even more hawkish line of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, in coordination with Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, raises doubts as to whether the Iranians have any interest at all in a real return to the talks.
And yet, the release of this information in Israel sparks many questions: Was it coordinated with political officials? Might the release of the information on the renewal of preparations not lead, unnecessarily, to increased tension with Iran? And above all – what is the real capability of the air force to set Iran’s nuclear program back years, if it gets the order to act? Ali Simhani, a senior official of the regime in Tehran, on Sunday advised Israel to save tens of billions of dollars – an estimate of the damage it would incur, according to him, as a result of the Iranian response if it dared attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
Iran also sends more violent messages. Last week drones struck the American base at Tanf in eastern Syria. The attack, which was ascribed to pro-Iranian militias, came a few days after a threat to respond to an Israeli assault in Syria, in which a number of militia fighters were killed. The next step might be an attempt to strike Israeli targets. Iran, like Israel, operates in Syria without taking into account the nuclear negotiations.
Spot the differences
In the territories, despite the firm declarations that Israel’s new government will not act like its predecessor, it seems that there are more similarities than differences between the Bennett-Lapid government and that of Netanyahu. The Israeli decision to grant 10,000 work permits in Israel for Palestinian merchants and laborers from Gaza, along with the lifting of some economic restrictions, brings back the reality between Israel and Hamas to the May 9 lines, before operation Guardian of the Walls (and still under the Netanyahu government). Because Egypt lifted many of the restrictions on goods entering the Gaza Strip from Sinai, and a solution is apparently close for bringing in the last third of the monthly assistance from Qatar, Hamas’ position is about to be better than it was five months ago.
In Gaza, Israel is trying to buy time to postpone the next military clash. But meanwhile it seems that a confrontation will happen eventually, considering the difficulty in finding a breakthrough in negotiations over the return of Israeli captives and the remains of soldiers in Gaza, and Israel’s position that major reconstruction projects will not take place unless these talks move forward.
In the West Bank and Jerusalem, small fires are beginning to burn. After the budget is passed, which is meant to strengthen the government’s position, a clash is expected with the Biden administration over the U.S. intention to reopen the American Consulate in East Jerusalem. The State Department in Washington has already objected to Israeli plans for construction in the settlements, especially deep in the West Bank.
Tensions with the U.S. rose over the weekend due to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s decision to outlaw six Palestinian human rights groups associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Even if this action is right (and Gantz has not yet presented persuasive evidence that it is), it is probably not wise. There are other controversial initiatives of the government’s right flank hovering in the background, along with numerous assaults on Palestinians by extremist settlers during the olive harvest, to which, as usual, the army and the police consistently respond weakly.
The bottom line is that as far as the Palestinians are concerned, there is no great difference at the moment between the policies of the current and the previous governments. In the Gaza Strip, Israel is openly threatening Hamas, while seeking quiet arrangements to ensure continued relative calm. In the West Bank, it is facing off against its only possible partner, the Palestinian Authority, for domestic consumption. The main difference is that the current administration in Washington is slightly less tolerant than its predecessor toward these moves, even if most of its energy and attention are directed to events in East Asia.