In the first part of 2019, the Israeli foreign policy achieved major successes. On March 26, US President Donald Trump signed a decree recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. That’s not a stretch to call this move the most notable Israeli victory in the 21th century. The only comparable, but less important event was the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, which was also made by the Trump administration. These developments push Israel to adapt its diplomatic and military activity. This does not mean that Israeli actions would become more ‘peaceful’ or its leadership would abandon its expansionist desires. However, Tel Aviv needs some time to consolidate the gains on various fronts. This is the real reason of the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on April 4.
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In 2019, as well as in the previous years, the Russian leadership demonstrated its readiness for negotiations with Israel and was drawing up own plans in the Middle East taking into account Israeli interests. During the April 4 visit, Netanyahu would try to develop the recent Israeli successes on the diplomatic front. Israel pursues two key goals:
- To get a silent Russian support over the Golan Heights issue;
- To increase a diplomatic pressure on Iran and pro-Iranian groups in order to secure own forces deployed along the Golan Heights contact line and to prevent possible attacks by Iranian-led forces: from sabotage acts to open military incidents.
The Israeli military is planning to continue delivering strikes and carrying out special operations in Syria. The only thing, which can prevent this, is an active Russian position. This may include direct participation of Russian air defense forces in repelling aggressive Israeli strikes or even the involvement of Russian ground troops in the event of special or limited military operations by Israel.
This is all what Netanyahu wants from Putin. Formal statements regarding the need of political settlement of the Syrian conflict, preventing of humanitarian crises and joint security efforts as well as other high diplomatic phrases are a cover for solving tactical goals pursued by the Israeli leadership.
The situation in Syria itself is complicated. Various powers and factions are involved in shaping the future of the country. The main actors influencing the situation on the ground are the Damascus government, Russia, the US, Iran, pro-Iranian groups (first of all Hezbollah), Turkey, Israel, Kurdish armed groups and the Al-Qaeda-like “opposition” controlling Idlib. The rest concerned sides do have little or no tools to influence the situation directly. An effective peacemaking would be possible if the Damascus government, Iran, Russia and Turkey unite their efforts. They would be able to settle the conflict in a way, which would be acceptable for various parts of the Syrian population and the Syrian nation in general. Israel and the US are opposing to this scenario. The main declared reason is their opposition to Iranian influence. Additionally, Tel Aviv and Washington are concerned over mid-long term consequences of the expanding Turkish participation in the conflict and its growing influence in the region.
Nonetheless, the main short-term goal of Israel is to remove Iran from the political life of a new Syria and impact political developments in the country through intermediaries or even directly. This explains why sources close to the negotiations say that the goal of Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow is to discuss the settlement of the Syrian crisis in a way, which would be acceptable for Tel Aviv and Washington. Therefore, additionally to the aforementioned tactical goals, there is another goal – to shape the group of the key ‘peacemaking’ powers. This new format would include Russia, the US, Israel and Turkey. In this scenario, the Damascus government would be considered as a satellite of Russia and would have no real decision-making power. This situation would be similar to the type of relations between Washington and the Kabul regime.
An interesting fact is that Israel has what to propose to Russia. These are:
1. Guarantees from Israel and the Trump administration that they would ‘respect’ the pre-agreed level Russian influence in the region. Tel Aviv would suggest Moscow to consolidate its achieved success in Syria. This is mostly related to Moscow’s economic interests in the energy sector, construction (infrastructure projects), the agricultural industry and exploitation of natural resources (in particular phosphates). This scenario would also include the de-facto recognition of the Russian foothold in the Middle East by the US and Israel.
Another factor contributing to the Israeli plans is the Iranian behavior. Teheran has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not going to act as a real Russian ally in the economic and diplomatic spheres. Even Turkey, which had a deep conflict with Russia a few years ago, is acting much more friendly towards Russia in these spheres than Iran has ever acted. Examples of this situation is Ankara’s behavior towards the S-400 deal and the TurkStream project.
2. Tel Aviv could propose Moscow an additional funding via Israeli-affiliated global financial structures. These funding can be used to support Russian economic projects in the Middle East as well as projects inside Russia.
3. The Israeli leadership has a certain level of influence on the developments in Ukraine, where a civil war has been ongoing since 2014. On March 31, Ukraine held a first tour of the presidential election in which comedian Volodymyr Zelensky got an upper hand over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. Israeli mainstream media outlets actively promote Zelensky as a person with Jewish roots. Furthermore, he is a protégé of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi that has deep ties with the Israeli establishment. A second round of the presidential election is set to be held on April 21 and it’s highly likely that Zelensky will become the next president of Ukraine. This would give Israel an ace card in negotiations with Russia.
Netanyahu and Putin have a wide range of topics to discuss. Israel knows what it wants from Russia and what to propose to it. At the same time, the Kremlin understands that if it decides to accept Israeli proposals fully or partly, it will bore some obvious expenses. In particular, the Russian position as the main peacemaking power in the Middle East would be weakened. The main counter-argument to Israeli suggestions is the lack of trust to the US and Israel. There are no guarantees that Tel Aviv and Washington will accomplish own part of the deal. The recent decades demonstrated that the White House is not negotiate with Russia as with an equal partner on the international scene.