Russian PM’s Visit to Israel Will Play Out Against Complex Backdrop

By Genevieve Belmaker | November 8, 2016 | 12:22am EST
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, File)

Jerusalem ( – Fresh on the heels of a pair of diplomatic scuffles between Russia and Israel, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is slated to visit here later this week.

The trip comes at a time when Russia’s increasing flexing of military muscle in the region, where it is deeply engaged in the conflict in Syria, has reportedly put some government insiders on edge.

Last month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu  personally took President Vladimir Putin to task over Russia’s vote in support of a highly controversial UNESCO resolution that did not historically connect Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to Judaism, according to Israeli paper Ha’aretz.

In late September, Russia also joined in on another in a long line of pressuring statements to Israel from the so-called diplomatic Mideast Quartet, which includes Russia. It reiterated a need for a two-state solution, a halt to settlement building, and the need to address the “dire” human rights situation in Gaza. (Other Quartet members are the U.S., European Union and U.N.).  It followed a Quartet report issued in July with specific steps for achieving a two-state solution.

At the time, Netanyahu welcomed the Quartet’s decrying of Palestinian violence, but said that its report “perpetuates the myth that Israeli construction in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace.”  He also said that it failed to “address the real core of the conflict: the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in any boundaries.”

There have been other visits from Russian officials recently. In late September, Russian officials traveled to Israel to discuss regional instability and diplomatic relations. Among those who met with Netanyahu were Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and the president of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko.

The stakes have become increasingly high since then, though, due in great part to Russia’s role in the ongoing conflict in Syria, where its armed intervention is aimed at keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Now, a possible backlash from its ongoing presence and actions in the region has come to the fore.

According to an Israeli Channel 2 television report, a growing amount of advanced Russian weaponry in the region has put a hamper on the movement of the Israeli Air Force and Navy, particularly beyond Israel’s borders.

Russia’s sole airship carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is expected to drop anchor off Syria any day now, after a closely-watched trip around Europe and into the Mediterranean accompanied by the nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Peter the Great, and support ships.

The Kuznetsov carries, high-tech weapons systems, nearly 2,000 sailors and is capable of hosting more than 50 fighter jets, but not every defense expert in Israel is alarmed by its imminent arrival in the region.

According to the Channel 2 report, Israel is particularly concerned about the Kuznetsov’s cutting-edge aeronautical defense systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and advanced radars. Anti-submarine capabilities and the ability to conduct aerial photography and intelligence-gathering are also a concern.

Zvi Magen, a security expert and research fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, is among those who are not particularly impressed with or worried by the ramped-up presence of Russian firepower in the area.

Magen, a former ambassador to Russia and Ukraine and an expert on Israel-Russia relations and defense issues, described the aircraft carrier as “very old and unattractive.”

But he also said Russia wants to use its presence to “show the great image that Russia has the power, that Russia is serious, that Russia is ready to fight against everyone who is not a big friend of Russian interests.”

Magen noted that diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel have been in good standing over the past 25 years. The two even carried out joint military exercises just last year. But he also described the region as a tough “neighborhood.”

“We have on our borders a coalition for Iran, Assad’s army, Hezbollah, and Russia. In that case it looks not so nice, not so easy,” said Magen. “On the other hand, Israel is a strong country.”

Israel’s foreign ministry says Medvedev’s meetings this week will be focused on trade – although at about $2 billion, the trade relationship is dwarfed when compared to that with China, for example.

Medvedev will hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Medvedev’s history is about as checkered as it comes for an active politician of a leading world power. Two stints as Russia’s president and a longtime love-hate relationship with Putin – who served as his prime minister – have played out in a sometimes very awkward manner, with the two sometimes depicted as allies and sometimes as foes.

Medvedev became prime minister when Putin returned to the presidency in August 2015.

“Medvedev is being rehabilitated,” political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote for the Carnegie Moscow Center at the time. “He is useful to Putin as someone who has proven his willingness still to play ball, despite having suffered humiliation.”

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