The Case for the “Israeli Left” to Pivot Towards Russia

With the 2016 United States Presidential election now behind us, let’s look forward.  What candidate Trump can teach us is that America is continuing its policy of removing itself from its international obligations and playing a significant role in the Middle East.  This was a foreign policy that began under President Obama and will most likely continue under the next president.  Outgoing President Obama’s views both at home and abroad were a breath of fresh air from America’s 43rd President, George W. Bush.  However, many pundits in the media dubbed Obama’s policies as “false hope” and awfully “naïve.”  That might have been the perception but it may be misguided to criticize him for beginning the United States on this path.

What President Obama was trying to do was focus his presidency on the domestic problems that was plaguing his country and be less committal abroad.  Throughout his presidency, he correctly assessed that America has urgent items to address at home—namely race relations, gun violence, income inequality, a shrinking middle-class, and countless other domestic issues—and too much is financially invested abroad.  While he made some progress, his attempts fell way short on the domestic file, which harmed his ability to be truly effective on the international stage. While Obama’s successor campaigned on the same sentiment, it is highly unlikely he will be able to follow through on those protectionist campaign promises.

Despite what Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies on the right of the Israeli political spectrum say, this should not take away from what President Obama did to maintain strong ties between Israel and the United States.  Amongst other noble achievements for Israel, his greatest achievement was the “Iran deal,” which addresses the reduction of Iran’s nuclear capability for at least a decade or longer.  However, his most important and significant political move came in 2013 when he spoke to Israeli students.  While he would’ve certainly liked to see a two-state solution occur during his presidency, the speech was the “real Obama.”  He clearly stated that Israel shouldn’t rely on foreign powers to create the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.  Only the Israeli and Palestinian populations alone could push its respective politicians to solve the two-state conundrum.  Along with his other foreign policy decisions in the region, he was clearly trying to reduce America’s leadership role in the Middle East.  At times, it might’ve had its errors and hiccups but the message was clear.  He wanted America to focus on its domestic woes.

Now, with the recent election of America’s 45th President, it is clear that America has no interest to get itself involved in this region with recent disasters in the Middle East and North Africa—namely Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and most recently the Syrian civil war.  Equally, it is a country that has over expanded itself on the international stage in other parts of the world and has consecutively voted for Presidents that have campaigned on reducing its power abroad.  What President Trump decides to do remains to be seen but as a candidate, he is determined to focus on America’s domestic economic concerns rather than be tangled abroad.  That is why the Israeli Left should begin to shift itself to others who do have an unequivocal interest in this region, the national security of this country, and the Palestinians.  Yes, that country is Russia.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow before the opening the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow after reconstruction in 2015. Recently, President Putin has offered Moscow as a location to resume peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Photo: http://en.kremlin.ru
Up until recently, the Israeli Left has been associating Netanyahu’s approach towards Russia as part of his plan to buy time and that’s an argument that comes with justification.  In the seven and half years as prime minister, he has done just that.  He has teetered between the two camps within the Israeli Right: the Neo-Zionists, a religiously inflected extremist view for the Land of Israel and justifying the settlement project as messianic, and the “procrastinating” camp, which believes that Israel doesn’t have a peace partner and that Arab leaders are hell-bent on destroying it and will act in that way based on their capability.

The recent rapprochement with PM Netanyahu and his rightwing coalition with Russia might suit Netanyahu and the Israeli Right’s rhetoric of managing the crisis and buying time for a two-state solution; however, it is a partnership that the Israeli Left should also strongly consider.  The Israeli Left has correctly argued that a two-state solution along the 1967 borders is the only tenable solution for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state.  As the status quo remains, this reality becomes grimmer by the day.  Moreover, the Israeli Left accurately points out that managing the crisis will only lead to undesirable consequences—namely the strong possibility of a civil war.  On these two points alone, a partnership with the Russian Federation can be of great benefit.

It’s no secret that the Israeli Left understands Israel’s national security better than the Israeli Right.  In this day and age, mutual interests drive international politics.  Countries base their interests on their own national security.  Its partnerships with other countries tend to derive from that on the international stage.

Israel bases its national security on two-points.  First, it wants to preserve Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.  This was one of the main arguments for disengaging in 2005 from the Gaza Strip.  With the current occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this point is becoming a threat to the Jewish and democratic principles of the state.  The second point is about the day-to-day maintenance of the personal safety and well being of Israelis.  Here too we are seeing a severe deterioration as we see stabbings, car-rammings, and shootings more frequently to Israelis both within and outside the Green Line.  These alarms seem to be ignored by the current Israeli Prime Minister.  He is willing to address none of these points and rather play politics with it and sway between the political camps on the Israeli Right.  However, Israel’s Left seems to understand its national security better and, while the Americans are leaving this region, Russia has not.  Yes, both Israel’s and Russia’s national security converge.

Russia has a vested interest that this region remains stable for its own domestic purposes.  Primarily, Russia has a large Muslim population that it also fears might get radicalized.  Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia deems Islamic radicalization as one of its most serious challenges to ensure its integrity and stability.  In fact, today, Russians view stability as a priority over democracy—largely because of the hardships they had suffered under the Yeltsin years.  A destabilized region will pose grave problems within its borders and, thus, it wants this region to remain stable.  With the Middle East geographically attached to the Caucuses region, this is a grave concern for Russia as the Caucuses has been a recent hotbed for the so-called Islamic State.  Likewise, a peace accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis is equally in Russia’s interest due to the alternative scenario having undesirable destabilizing consequences to the region.  Actually, it is official Russian policy that there be a two-state solution.  Most certainly, it understands the Middle East better than most countries because it has historically been in the region for centuries.

If the latter issue still isn’t convincing, under its current President, Russia has shown signs of being a willing friend of Israel and a partner to bring a two-state solution.  When the late Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Mr. Sharon to hand over territory in the West Bank to the Palestinians.  In 2005, Mr. Putin visited Israel for the first time.  This was the first time that a Russian (or Soviet) head of state visited the Jewish state.  Seven years later, he returned to inaugurate a monument of the Soviet Army victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.  In his speech, President Putin suggested that the Holocaust was “the darkest, most shameful chapter in human history” and praised the Soviet Army for smashing “the head of the Nazi monster and [allow] all nations to survive.”  Most recently, President Putin has offered Moscow as a location for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  If it weren’t for Israeli researchers Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor’s sabotage attempt, suspicion wouldn’t have been instilled with the Israeli population.  To those like Remez, Ginor, and others, that have suggested that Russia shouldn’t be trusted, are simply impeding a two-state reality to exist and one should question their judgment if they are interested in a Jewish state living side-by-side a Palestinian one.

With Russia’s interest of stability in the region and a supporter of a two-state reality, this should be a wakeup call for the Israeli Left that there is a country that wants this reality to come to fruition.  With the mutual interest of the two countries, it is time to work with the Russians, not be stubborn and confrontational.  The way Israel’s other allies and partners conduct themselves with Russia is not a reason to prevent relations. It is a country who has the same interests as Israel.  Israel’s main interest is a democratic Jewish state living side-by-side with a Palestinian one and so is Russia’s.  Given what is going on in the region with the “Arab Spring,” it is safe to say that Russia will remain a major player and have much influence in this region to ensure that their interests of stability remain preserved.  While America soul-searches on both the domestic and foreign level, the Israeli Left should consider Russia as a partner for brokering a two-state solution.  Certainly, the onus is on the Israelis and Palestinians to ferment a final agreement but, as the evidence has shown, the Russians can certainly help as a partner and be an honest broker.

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