Background

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have fundamentally changed the strategic balance in the Middle East and have had a profound impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Although the Middle East conflict never totally fit into a neatly polarized Cold War pattern, the Arab-Israeli conflict was for the most part sucked into the larger East/West confrontation. After a brief period (l947-51), in which the Soviet Union supported Israel when it was attacked by then Western-oriented Arab countries (mainly Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan), that opposed the l947 United Nations General Assembly resolution for the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, Moscow and its Warsaw Pact allies basically supported the Arab side in the wars against Israel in l956, l967, and l973, as well as during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in l982.

The support of the Soviet bloc was strategic, financial, ideological and diplomatic. Its main ingredient was the arming and training of the armies of radical Arab regimes (mainly Egypt and Syria) with massive state-of-the-art weaponry, coupled with a strategic umbrella consisting of two elements: re-supplying Egypt and Syria with abundant heavy weaponry after each war so as to redress the balance of power after heavy Arab losses of tanks and aircraft in each of the wars with Israel; and making it clear that in extremis the Soviet Union might intervene directly if Israeli armies tried to capture an Arab capital or were about to achieve a total victory over the Arab side; in l973 this caused the United States to call a world wide alert in response to information that Moscow might have been trying to send forces to assist Egypt after Israel crossed the Suez Canal.

This strategic umbrella effectively enabled Arab regimes to recoup politically from humiliating military defeats and gave them enough support to avoid the painful concessions that peace with Israel would have entailed. When the whole Soviet bloc (except Romania) broke diplomatic relations with Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War in l967, and Warsaw Pact countries joined an Arab initiative at the UN to brand Zionism as a form of racism, the Soviet Union and its allies moved ever so closely to the fundamental Arab position of delegitimizing Israel's existence, though Moscow always insisted that it objected to Israeli occupation policies after l967 but not to its very existence.

Suppression of Jewish culture within the Soviet Union and the crackdown on Jewish dissidents and refuseniks only added a further dimension to the tension between Israel and the Soviet bloc. All this deepened US strategic support for Israel.

Under these circumstances, Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Soviet Union focussed on two issues: Soviet support for radical Arab regimes (and the Palestinian Liberation Organization), and opposition to the repression of Jewish culture and activities within the Soviet Union. The first provided Israel with significant strategic support within the Cold War context; the second gave Israel an effective public relations access to many liberal human rights activists in the West, and made the issue of Jewish emigration a mainstay of the human rights criticism of Soviet power, especially after the Helsinki conference.

Gorbachev's "New Thinking" on foreign policy mitigated, in a series of steps, Soviet attitudes toward Israel and the issue of Jewish emigration. Soviet policies moved in the later l980's from an outright pro-Arab orientation to a position somewhere between the European and the US positions on the conflict--culminating in Gorbachev's participation, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, at the opening of the Madrid Peace Conference in Autumn 1991. Diplomatic relations with Israel were resumed (some countries like Hungary and Poland resumed relations even earlier, as part of their gradual de-communization); most significantly and dramatically, emigration bans were lifted. The latter has led to the immigration of almost one million former Soviet citizens to Israel in the last decade. This migration not only strengthened Israel, but also made Israel into the country with the largest Russian-speaking diaspora outside the former Soviet Union.

The disappearance of the Soviet strategic umbrella deprived Arab leaders of their military and diplomatic insurance policy. It was this that moved the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) toward the Oslo Accords with Israel and led the Syrian Ba'athist regime to agree to serious negotiations with Israel. Even if these negotiations have not yet borne fruit in the form of an agreement, they have greatly diminished the dangers of a new Syrian-Israeli conflagration and signified the realization of even radical Arab regimes that absent the Soviet Union and its strategic guarantee, the Arab side no longer possesses a military option, and that the only way to cut Arab historical losses would be through negotiations--and negotiations via Washington.

Soviet impotence and consequent acquiescence in the Gulf War, combined with the strengthening of Israel through the enormous contribution of former Soviet immigrants to the country's economic, technological, and demographic strength further tilted the balance of power in Israel's favor and caused a more realistic and pragmatic attitude among erstwhile radical Arab leaders. It is reasonable to state that had the Soviet Union still existed in the l990's, the window for peace offered by the Oslo Accords and the Israeli-Syrian negotiations would not have been available.

The last years have consequently totally changed the role of Russia (as the main successor state of the Soviet Union) in the Middle East. Russia still has its own agenda regarding Iran and Iraq, and as the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement (as well as its demise) suggest, there are aspects of Russian policy in the region which are deeply troubling. Yet it is convincingly arguable that in the case of Iran, Russia's motivation is as much economically driven as it is strategically-oriented; if a "thaw" in Russian-Iranian relations does have a strategic aspect, it certainly has Central Asian, rather than Middle Eastern, considerations at its core.

Regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, Russia today is a status quo power, interested in stability, not in stasis. While it was never true--contrary to occasional western Cold War propaganda--that the Soviet Union was the cause of Arab-Israel tensions and was interested in exacerbating them, it cannot be denied that instability in the region greatly enhanced Arab dependency on the Soviet Union and hence Soviet influence in the region.

At present--again, with the possible destabilization inherent in Russia's involvement in Iran and Iraq--Russia aims toward contributing to stability in the region in all that concerns Israeli-Arab relations. While Russian leverage in moving the Israel-Arab peace process is limited, its potential for destabilization (e.g. through undermining US-led negotiations) would still be considerable; yet Russian policy in the last decade has been consistently supportive of stabilization and of US peace efforts. Even Putin's more assertive rhetoric on other issues (like NATO-enlargement and National Missile Defense) is limited, in the Middle East context, to mild expressions calling for a Russian role in peace-making, without offering specific alternative policies which might hinder US-led peace efforts.

In the current Russian attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and toward Israel, four facets can be discerned that inform Russian policy, and all point in the direction of a Russian role which while not overly active, is certainly not destabilizing. Occasionally, even a clear tilt toward Israel can be identified. These facets are the following:

While the Soviet Union could through military aid and its diplomatic international clout greatly influence regional politics and hamper the peace process (as it did after Camp David and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty after l979), current Russian policies are premised on realizing the limits of Russian power and the narrowness of Moscow's policy options. After the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation under Clinton at Camp David in July 2000, Russian officials did occasionally mention that Russia, as a co-sponsor of the Madrid Peace Conference, should not be excluded from further efforts of peace-making, but no specific alternative proposals were ever raised. Russian spokesmen reiterated Moscow's commitment to solving the conflict through peaceful means and called on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations, yet no Russian initiative was ever launched. Putin himself insisted to Arafat, during his visit to Moscow after the failure of Camp David, not to declare Palestinian independence unilaterally and urged him to go back to the negotiating table.

This careful and non-committal language has been consistently used by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during his various trips to the Middle East in the last months; even after some criticism from nationalist and communist deputies in the Duma about Russia's exclusion from the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in October 2000, Ivanov blandly responded that the summit's recommendations were identical with the Russian proposals and in any case they did not seen to have been excessively effective.

The Russian choice of maintaining a low profile can be ultimately attributed to a realistic assessment that Russia neither possesses a magic formula nor the necessary clout to do more than Washington tried to achieve in the last months of the Clinton Administration. Moreover, it appears that Moscow is aware that at present there is no obvious winning strategy, so why be a partner in what is basically going to be a failure? This may, of course, change if the region heads toward a major conflagration, yet the low profile approach appears to have been carefully thought out.

This realistic approach is not only substantially different from Soviet high profile involvement in which Moscow periodically suggested new strategies for solving the conflict; it is also methodically different in eschewing ideological wishful thinking in favor of a clear headed assessment based on what can be achieved given both the positions of the two sides as well as Russia's own diminished stature. The gap between rhetoric (and bluster) and reality, which bedeviled Soviet Middle Eastern diplomacy over the years, has narrowed considerably.

Current Russian policies also reflect a sober assessment of the Arabs' relative weakness and Israel's relative strength. Soviet policies tried to overcome the disparity by bolstering Arab military strength on the one hand, as well as attributing Israel's strength to its being an outpost and extension of American power. Current Russian thinking shirks from any support for Arab military options and recognizes the facts of Israel's military, technological, and economic edge as an essential attribute of its existence.

In line with the general de-ideologization of policy orientation in Moscow, this trend toward a realistic assessment of power relations causes Moscow to view Israel on the merits of its place in the regional balance of power; in a way this is similar to the Russian assessment (even under communism) of Turkey. This more knowledgeable and pragmatic approach to Israel has been partially caused by a better acquaintance with Israeli realities due both to the resumption of relations and better access to Israeli society through dialogue with and feedback from one million Russian-speakers in Israel. The ignorance about Israel, which permeated Soviet policy toward the country due to both ideological blinders and lack of access to Israeli society, has been superseded by an adequate assessment and judicious weighing of reality. The staff of the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv abounds with fluent Hebrew speakers, and they are able to counter-balance the kind of information that flows to Moscow from Arab capitals, which for decades was the only source of information to which policy-makers at the Kremlin could refer when making their decisions regarding Israel and the region. The Soviet-era information deficit has been publicly and privately admitted by top Russian policy makers in recent years.

In line with such a realistic assessment, the PLO appears as a weak factor vis-a-vis Israel; it has the potential of igniting a regional conflagration, and Russia remains committed--like the European Union (EU) as well as now also the United States--to Palestinian independence. But absent ideological distortions, a Russia that wishes to look for friends on its southern flank certainly looks to Israel, with its political and technological access to the West, rather than to the ailing, unreliable Arab orbit mired in Third World morass.

Moreover, since Russia lacks, on all sides, friendly neighbors, Israel now appears in some Russian thinking as a relatively strong country with which Russia has no conflict and does not threaten Russia. Israel can also, through its real or perceived closeness and access to US government, society, and public opinion, become a window to the West for Russia.

This attempt to be seen as more allied to Israel than to its adversaries has also informed Russian pronouncements about the recent outbreak of Palestinian-Israel violence. While EU statements have occasionally been harshly critical of Israel, Russian pronouncements, while calling for continued negotiations, have been singularly devoid of criticism of Israel and have avoided condemning Israel's military behavior in the Palestinian territories. Obviously, with the legacy of its own brutal behavior in Chechnya, Russia is not exactly in a good position to preach restraint in the use of force or fire power against civilians.

On a different level, aspects of joint Israeli-Russian defense and industrial cooperation opened avenues to western technology and markets to which Russia does not have easy access. The joint development of a new attack helicopter (Russian hardware, Israeli avionics) is just one example of a developing common strategic agenda. Under such conditions, and with these interests in mind, any Russian declaratory position that appears to be critical of Israel would obviously be counterproductive.

The brutal war in Chechnya, as well as Russia's perceived tilt against Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, have greatly diminished Moscow's standing in the Arab and Muslim world in recent years. If under communism, the Soviet Union, incongruously as it might seem, could appear on the international scene as the Defender of Islam, building a common anti-Western ideological and strategic alliance with Muslim countries, today it is Russia that is perceived in the Islamic world, and not only among Islamic fundamentalists, as the enemy of Islam. After all, at the moment it is Russian, not American soldiers, who are involved in a murderous struggle with Muslim freedom fighters in Chechnya; and in Central Asia Russia is seen, directly and by proxy, as the mainstay of anti-Islamicist policies.

This shift does not enhance Russia's clout and standing in the Arab world, and creates a perceived common front with Israel against Islamic fundamentalism. Israeli right-wing politicians, like Ariel Sharon and Nathan Sharansky, have spoken about this alliance publicly, to the delight of Russian media and politicians. During the Kosovo campaign, Sharon (then Foreign Minister in the outgoing Netanyahu government) even expressed some sympathy with Belgrade; though immediately retracted under both domestic and international pressure, Sharon's statements were not lost on Moscow.

During Prime Minister Barak's visit to Moscow in early Summer 2000, Putin tried to persuade him to issue a joint statement against Islamic fundamentalism. Barak demurred, reportedly telling Putin in private that while operational cooperation against Islamic-inspired terrorism is an obvious joint agenda between Israel and Russia (and the United States), Chechnya is an internal Russian affair that has grown out of a national conflict, and Israel is not going to be drawn into supporting Russia's position regarding Chechen independence under an anti-Islamicist rubric.

Be this as it may, the Chechen war has certainly diminished Russia's interest in being supportive of Arab and Islamic positions and has opened Russia to some severe criticism in Arab public opinion. As an unforeseen and unintended consequence of its Chechnya policy, Russia is now paying the heavy price of being seen as an enemy in many sectors of the Arab and Islamic world. This development has further shifted Russian sympathies in the Middle East conflict, while at the same time further diminishing its policy options.

As mentioned earlier, around one million Israelis are Russian-speakers who immigrated in the last 12 years. They make up around 20 percent of Israel's Jewish population and are a powerful political, cultural, and economic force in the country. Their impact has not only been significant in the country's internal politics, but has also altered Russia's perception of Israel and hence bilateral relations and mutual perceptions.

Russians view the one million Russian-speakers in Israel as part of the Russian diaspora and as a major foreign policy asset. This creates a sometimes problematic osmosis or symbiosis of Russian and Israeli politics, which nonetheless further cements relations between both countries.

At the moment, there are three "Russian" parties represented in the Knesset (one of them with the very un-Israeli but very Russian name "Israel Is Our Home"). The "Russian" vote is the major bloc of swing voters in Israeli elections (pro-Netanyahu in 1996, pro-Barak in l999, pro-Sharon in the special 2001 elections). Israeli politicians appear regularly in interviews on Russian TV stations (which are avidly viewed, via satellite, by most Russian-speakers in Israel). Sometimes their appearances even go around the Israeli law restricting time allotted to election contenders on Israeli TV. In the recent elections, not only did Sharansky address Israeli Russian-speakers on various Moscow channels, but both Sharon and Barak made some of their statements in their political election broadcasts in Russian (which both of them speak a little due to their family background, despite the fact that both were born in Israel).

This aspect of the inter-connectedness of Russian and Israeli societies has other facets, some of them perhaps less savory: Gusinsky's problems with Russian tax authorities (and Putin in general) figure prominently in the Israeli media, since Media-Most owns one of the Russian-language mass circulation dailies in Israel and is also part-owner of Maariv, the country's third largest Hebrew daily. This caused Israeli politicians of all stripes, especially in the heated atmosphere of the recent election campaign, to intervene on Gusinsky's behalf--and make it known publicly, especially in the so-called "Russian street." Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Ben-Ami thus intervened with the Spanish Prime Minister, asking for Gusinsky's freedom.

This close Russian-Israeli linkage is obviously a new discourse in Israeli politics, as are the structure and some of the characteristics of the "Russian" parties; they are commonly referred to, Moscow- style, as the "Sharansky Party," "Lieberman Party" and "Bronfman Party," to the exclusion of their official political designation.

These repercussions have also impacted some aspects of the Russian public's discourse on regional politics. Having a Russian diaspora in Israel gives rise to a novel Russian attachment to Israel and provides a different angle from which to look at the Middle East conflict. There are many expressions of this, the most pointed perhaps being Putin's statement in an interview he gave to ITAR-TASS on November 27, 2000. In a general interview on the Middle East, in which he reiterated his concern that the violence should not spread, Putin added (greatly exaggerating the figures):

Millions of people, or nearly one third of the Israeli population, have come from the USSR. We believe that our former citizens form a good reservoir for developing relations with other countries. We cannot be indifferent to their fate, and this is also true of Israel. Many of them have found themselves in the center of the conflict. This arouses Russia's concern and largely explains its interest in the Middle East.

This explicit note of empathy was not followed by any specific policy recommendation. However, it is emblematic of the new relationship between Russia and Israel that will remain a constant in the future thanks to Israel's vast Russian-speaking community.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union had far-reaching consequences for Eastern and Central Europe: it liberated nations from the Soviet yoke, brought about the unification of Germany, totally changed the European political map and consequently the global balance of power. Similarly, it has had no less of a tremendous effect on the Middle East.

The recent electoral campaign in Israel and Ariel Sharon's victory have similarly elicited a low-key response by Russian officials as well as the Russian media. While US and European media have generally depicted Sharon as an extremist, if not a dangerous hawk, usually also mentioning his Lebanon role and predicting dire results in the case of his election, reactions in Russia were much less critical. During the election campaign itself, Sharansky was given ample time on various Russian TV channels to explain his and Sharon's hard line positions, without much criticism from the interviewers. Sharon's victory itself was not criticized by official Russian spokesmen, given the general context of Russian attitudes to Israel mentioned earlier.

Since Sharon has in the past made some comments about closer relations with Russia, while generally suggesting that Israel should not rely exclusively on its US links, there would be in any case a subtext of sympathy for him in official Russian circles; a hard line vis-a-vis the Palestinians as Muslims might be seen in Moscow as highly laudable. Unless a major violent crisis follows the establishment of a Sharon-led government, one can expect a continuation of the current Russian line toward Israel. Similarly, one should not rule out attempts on the part of Sharon to capitalize on this relationship and even to try to formulate a more explicit strategic understanding with Moscow.

Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From September to December 2000 he was a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.