Monday, March 10, 2014

Haaretz: Putin, Ukraine & Israel

Putin may have lost Ukraine’s Jews but he will always have Israel.
The First Crimean War broke out on March 28, 1854, 160 years ago this month, over attempts by the French Emperor Napoleon III to put French Catholic monks in control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem instead of Russian Orthodox priests. The current geopolitical showdown around the peninsula is seemingly not connected to Jerusalem in any way. The strategic alliance with the United States, on the one hand, and the desire not to anger Putin, on the other, mandate Israeli silence over Ukraine. On Wednesday, following American pressure, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s personal spokesman issued an anemic statement expressing the hope that the crisis in Ukraine could be solved in a peaceful manner. Not a mention of Russia or Crimea.
And yet, Israel is connected.
A Ukrainian citizen stepping in to the lobby of one of Tel-Aviv’s luxury hotels this week would have been surprised to encounter there a wider array of his country’s political and business elite, many of them meeting senior Israeli officials and businesspeople. In this conflict, Israel has become a safe-haven, a neutral zone where Ukrainians afraid to remain in there homeland can rest their heads. Many of them own homes in western Europe, particularly in London, but while the European Union is discussing the freezing of assets of those close to the old regime, why take the risk? Israel is a few hours flight from Ukraine, there are lots of Russian-speakers and there is no need to worry about any sanctions. Israel won’t take any step that will anger either side, including not condemning Putin’s occupation.
Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador in Kiev, Reuven Dinel, a former intelligence officer, has been holding quiet meetings with leaders of the parties that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych two weeks ago. The meetings have included the ultra-nationalist parties, which are eager to cleanse themselves of the stain of anti-Semitism that has tainted the entire Maidan revolution, at least in the eyes of the Kremlin-influenced media.
There have been two major crises in the Israel-Putin relationship. The first came in 2006, when Israel accused Russia of having supplied Hezbollah with advanced anti-tank missiles that damaged Israel Defense Forces tanks. The Kremlin initially denied the charge, until Israel sent analyses from the IDF substances laboratory that proved beyond doubt the missiles’ provenance. An Israeli official who took part in the meetings with the Kremlin said the Russians were surprised that the missiles, originally supplied to Syria, had found their way to Lebanon and promised to supervise more closely in the future.
The second crisis came with the outbreak of the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, when weapons systems and training supplied by Israel assisted the small Georgian army in inflicting casualties on the Russian invaders. Putin met President Shimon Peres at the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games and made it clear Russia would not remain silent. The message struck home and the former IDF officers and Israeli security companies working in Georgia were instructed to return home immediately.
Since then, there has been close coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow, manifested among other things in the continued delay of supplies of advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, despite their being paid for. The supervision of Russian weapons in Syria has loosened, especially since the outbreak of the civil war there, but Russian has not reacted to the destruction, ascribed to Israel, of advanced Russian missiles that were about to be handed over to Hezbollah. As long as this coordination remains in place, not a word of criticism will be heard from Israel, no matter what the Russians do in Crimea.