Russia’s displeasure with Israel simmers as Putin readies to visit for Yad Vashem event

January 22, 2020 by Israel Kasnett - JNS.org
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Russian President Vladimir Putin will leave his controlled environment in Moscow to enter a media firestorm when he alights from his plane in Israel this Thursday as he arrives for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin seen during a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, on May 9, 2018. Photo Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.

Amid ongoing tensions with Israel over Israeli military operations in Syria against Iran, as well as the case of Israeli traveller Naama Issachar, who is currently jailed in Russia for having a negligible amount of drugs in her possession when transiting through Moscow, Putin will face heavy media scrutiny and wide public speculation over whether he will soon release her. The Kremlin spokesman has announced that Putin will discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a possible pardon for Issachar during his visit to Israel.

According to Micky Aharonson, an expert on international relations and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, Putin’s arrival in Israel for the event “is a goal in itself. It is important for Putin to portray himself as anti-fascist and a fighter against anti-Semitism. This gives him credit and legitimacy in the international community. It is good for Putin.”

With regard to the 27-year-old Issachar, Aharonson said this is a “tragic humanitarian case, which in Israel has become a national issue.”

Aharonson explained that Russia sees its favours to Israel as adding up, and Israel is “in debt.”

According to Israel’s Channel 13, Russia has requested several concessions for Issachar’s freedom, including a resolution to a building dispute in Sergei’s Courtyard in Jerusalem, which serves Russian pilgrims in the city. Additionally, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Russia is seeking some sort of backing for its own narrative regarding World War II and that Netanyahu may reference it in his upcoming speech to world leader’s at the Yad Vashem commemoration.

“All of these events pile up together to deliver a message: Russia is unhappy over Israel’s failure to adequately reciprocate gestures.”

Russia feels it is giving Israel a lot of maneuverability in Syria, and it was instrumental in returning the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel. Russia detained Israeli citizens twice last month because it was upset that Israel has turned away numerous Russian travelers at its border. After a Russian plane was shot down by Syrian forces in September 2018, a tragedy which Israel was initially blamed for, Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu complained to the media that Russian soldiers risked their lives to return Baumel’s remains “and this is what we get in return.”

“They claim we are risking the lives of their soldiers, and that we are not giving them enough warning time,” said Aharonson, referring to Israeli military actions in Syria.

With Issachar’s detainment and sentencing, “the price went up,” she said, noting that it sounds harsh, but that’s how Russia operates.

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” she said. “All of these events pile up together to deliver a message: Russia is unhappy over Israel’s failure to adequately reciprocate gestures.”

With this in mind, the question still remains over whether Putin will pardon Issachar, and whether he and Netanyahu can reach further agreements with regard to preventing the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.

‘It’s part of the deal’

Emil Avdaliani, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, told JNS that although the visit is about Holocaust commemoration, the Russian media circulated information that Issachar could be pardoned by Putin, which, according to Avdaliani, would be “in exchange for allowing Russian travelers into Israel more freely than usual.”

“She was a kind of prisoner for this deal. The Russians … use tricks and schticks.”

“Another issue,” he said, “could be the situation in the Middle East and Syria, in particular, following [Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem] Soleimani’s death. It is well known that at times, the Russians were worried over Iran’s extensive influence in Syria and Israel’s possible retaliation.”

The death of Soleimani “could change some things on the ground.”

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia and now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that Russia is “looking for an agreement with Israel on the Iran-Syria issue and is using Issachar as leverage.”

According to Magen, the two issues are linked. “Generally speaking, the relationship is a show, and Issachar is part of the show. … It’s part of the deal,” he said. “She was a kind of prisoner for this deal. The Russians … use tricks and schticks.”

Magen was hopeful that Russia and Israel would resolve their differences on these outstanding issues before Putin’s arrival; otherwise, according to Magen, he wouldn’t come.

“All of these problems are supposed to be solved before Putin arrives in Israel,” he said.

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