The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia on Thursday, only five days before the parliamentary election in the occupied territories, and met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. His last trip to Moscow was about a month ago. The sequence of his visits to Russia raises speculations about his goals behind meeting the Russian leader.
Gaining votes of Israelis of Russian descents
Intensified foreign trips raise the idea that Netanyahu exploits foreign relations to strengthen his shaky position as the elections arrive. His image at home has been rocked by corruption scandals that saw him regularly interrogated by police, risking his loss in the elections. But why does he invest in Russia to reverse the damages to his position in Israeli politics?
Since the 7th century up to the early 19th century, the Jews immigrated to Russia in various periods. Despite the fact that after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 many Jews migrated to other parts of the world, Russia is presently the world’s fifth largest home of Jews. Some 180,000 Jews are now living in Russia.
Russia’s Jews are of influence in politics, economy, media, and academic circles. On the other hand, the Israelis of Russian descents hold a significant place in the Israeli regime. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, one-third of the Israeli migrants were from Russia. Of 8 million Israeli population, some 1.5 million are originally Russians.
The Russian Jews mainly hold hardline postures and are antagonistic towards the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arabs. Netanyahu finds them accordant with his right-wing policies.
Various media in the occupied territories are published in the Russian language. The election candidates also talk Russian in their campaign speeches when their audience are majorly Russian-descented. So, the Netanyahu focus on Russia rests in an intention to garner the support of the Russian-rooted Jews who are weighty in the Israeli society.
Pressuring Lebanese Hezbollah via Putin
Netanyahu is working hard to put strains on Lebanese Hezbollah movement through Moscow. Over the past two years, Tel Aviv has been accusing the Lebanese resistant movement of setting up an arms factory. The claim was first made by Herzi Halevi, the chief of Israeli Southern Command. He said that the factory was built in Lebanon and tasked with manufacturing weapons for Hezbollah. He further claimed that the Lebanese movement used Iranian technologic capabilities to boost its military infrastructure. “They manufacture arms and transfer them to Lebanon’s south to be used when the need arises,” his allegations read.
On October 2018, the Israeli military commanders accused Lebanon-based Green Without Borders, a pro-environment NGO, of hosting arms-manufacturing facilities for Hezbollah. In the same month, the Israeli military claimed that Hezbollah established a secret site for arms production in a densely-populated neighborhood of southern Beirut. It said that the factory also served as a research center to improve the Lebanese missiles’ accuracy.
Netanyahu is in constant motion to increase the military activities near Lebanon. In early December last year, he ordered Operation Northern Shield, an operation on borders with Lebanon meant to “expose” alleged Hezbollah tunnels stretching into the occupied territories. He suggests that talks with Moscow over the Iranian military presence in Syria have led to Tehran change of tactic represented by intensified presence in Lebanon. The Israeli leader makes such claims to suggest that Hezbollah presence in Syria is detrimental to stability in the crisis-hit country and so encourage Putin to press the Lebanese group that played an unavoidable role in Damascus fight against terrorism.
Undermining Axis of Resistance in Syria
Over the past years of the Syrian crisis, the Israeli regime went to great lengths to weaken the Axis of Resistance, led by Iran, in Syria. As long as the Salafi terrorists held major tracts of land on the border with the Israeli regime, Tel Aviv helped them logistically and treated their wounded fighters. But when the government, with help of its allies, cleansed the border areas of terrorists and restored calm, Netanyahu, who aspires for widespread recognition of occupied Syrian Golan Heights as Israeli territory, faces a challenge represented by the Resistance camp’s actors across Syria. In quest of a solution, he seeks to bolster military diplomacy with Moscow to impair the Resistance within the Syrian boundaries.
Since 2016, the year war began to wind down in Syria amid sweeping victories over a range of foreign-backed terrorist factions, Netanyahu traveled to Russia over 10 times. Before his Thursday visit, Netanyahu said that the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria will be more dangerous than Hamas in Gaza Strip.
Under the ruse of self-defense, the Israeli regime has so far launched hundreds of air raids on Syrian government sites. Russia predominantly has been opposed to them. When an Israeli air operation in Syria led to the downing of the Russian reconnaissance IL-20 plane on the Syrian coasts, Moscow held Tel Aviv accountable, saying Syrian security and stability was its red line. The downing triggered a Kremlin decision to deliver to Syrian government effective S-300 air defenses. Following the move, Israeli attack flights over Syria remarkably dropped, mainly replaced with remote missile strikes which are majorly intercepted by Syrian defenses. On March 28, Syria military released a statement after an Israeli missile strike, saying the attack on Aleppo province was frustrated by anti-missile systems and the damages were limited to materials.
Netanyahu was accompanied by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the cabinet’s National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, as well as the army intelligence chief Amos Yaldin. Taking such figures with him indicates that the PM intended also to coordinate military and intelligence operations in Syria with the Russian leader. He finds the current regional conditions, as well as US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s alliance with him, the best opportunity to realize his ambitions. So, he seeks to win at any costs to continue what many read as his destabilizing regional policies that draw him the favor of the hardline Jews at home and abroad.
But repeated trips to Russia with repeated demands bear witness to his regular defeats in reaching his goals. Still, we should wait to see if his last-minute full-steam travail help him save his sinking government and position.