Israel and Russia’s Strange Relationship
Israel allows a Russian military aircraft to get between its F-16s and Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. However, the downing of the Russian aircraft doesn’t lead to a military confrontation between Israel and Russia. It doesn’t even lead to a diplomatic rift, where the Russian ambassador is recalled for talks. Instead, Russia publicly blames Israel and both sides move on.
The fact is that Israel and Russia have a relationship that goes back over a century – a relationship that has shaped Israel to a great degree. Israel is home to a core Russian-Jewish population of 900,000 and a population of 1,200,000 if one includes non-Jewish members of Jewish households. In addition, Russian is the third most widely spoken first language in Israel, after Hebrew and Arabic, and has the third largest number of Russian speakers outside former Soviet countries, and the highest as a proportion of the total population.
The first Jewish migration from Russia occurred nearly 150 years ago. These families settled in the Ottoman Empire in the 1880s in order to escape oppression in the Russian Empire and later mostly intermarried with local Jews. Their descendants included famous Israeli military figures and politicians such as Alexander Zaïd, Rafael Eitan, Ariel Sharon and Major-General Alik Ron.
Many of the early Jews settled in commune-like kibbutz that followed Communist doctrine. This made Soviet Union/Zionist relations warm when Palestine was part of the British mandate and the early days establishing the state of Israel.
In May 1947 Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko told the United Nations that the USSR supported the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The USSR and its allies voted in November 1947 for the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. It paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel. On May 17, 1948, three days after Israel declared its “independence”, the Soviet Union officially recognized Israel.
However, relations soured and were severed by the Soviet government in June 1967, in protest of Israeli policy during the Six Day War and immediately after. The Soviet Union only resumed diplomatic relations with Israel on October 18, 1991 – two months before the USSR collapsed.
The first modern Jewish migration from Russia occurred while the USSR and Israel didn’t have diplomatic relations and was political in nature. Political dissidents like Natan Sharansky were part of this group. They were strongly anti-communist, pro-West, and political.
This was the first time that Russian Jews had a strong voice in Israeli politics. In 1995, Sharansky and Yoel Edelstein founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party, which promoted the absorption of the Soviet Jews into Israeli society. The party won seven Knesset seats in 1996. It won 6 seats in the Israeli legislative election in 1999, gaining two ministerial posts, but left the government on 11 July 2000 in response to suggestions that Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s negotiations with the Palestinians would result in a division of Jerusalem. After Ariel Sharon won a special election for Prime Minister in 2001, the party joined his new government, and was again given two ministerial posts. It has since merged into the Likud Party.
The second major migration from Russia to Israel was during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike the previous migration, this one was economic in character, not political.
Sensing that many of theses Russian immigrants would be likely Likud supporters, Israel’s Likud government opened its doors wide to Russian immigration. As a result, the majority of Russian Jews live in Israel, not Russia. And, the Russian Jewish population represents about 20% of Israel’s population.
Another political advantage of the migration for the Likud Party was that it reduced the political impact of Palestinian living under Israeli authority (referred to as Arabs of 1948).
This Russian migration had a major societal impact on Israel. Most of the Russian Jews were educated and the number of Jewish professionals like doctors and engineers grew in the 1990s. There were also many who drifted into politics.
One example is Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He is a Soviet-born Israeli politician who serves as the Defense Minister of Israel. He served as Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2009 to 2012, and again from 2013 to 2015. He has also served as member of the Knesset and as Deputy Prime Minister of Israel.
Although Lieberman advocates Israeli membership in NATO, he has close relations with Russia. After the 2011 Duma election, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia won, Lieberman was the first international politician to describe them as “absolutely fair, free and democratic”. Putin has described Lieberman’s own political career as “brilliant”. Lieberman’s pro-Russian stance and perceived friendly relations with Putin have also drawn criticism from fellow Israelis. Controversy also emerged when it was revealed that a chairman of Lieberman’s party, Leon Litinetski, was also employed by the Russian government, as a chairman of the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots, a position appointed by the Kremlin.
Russian President Putin has also had good thing to say about Israel. In 2011, Putin said: “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking. It’s apparent that more than half of the population speaks Russian.” Putin additionally claimed that Israel could be considered part of the Russian cultural world, and contended that “songs which are considered to be national Israeli songs in Israel are in fact Russian national songs.” He further stated that he regarded Russian-speaking Israeli citizens as his compatriots and part of the “Russian world.”
During Israeli aggression on Gaza in 2014, Putin stated that “I support Israel’s battle that is intended to keep its citizens protected.”
Israeli/Russian Jews with dual citizenship have also helped Putin politically. Hundreds of thousands of Russian-Israeli citizens live in Israel. During Russian elections, the Russian government set up polling stations across many Israeli cities as well as smaller towns, in order to enable the Russian citizens who are living in Israel to cast their vote.
In the 2018 Russian Presidential Election, Vladimir Putin was the most popular candidate amongst Russian Israeli voters, winning 72.62% of the vote.
There is no doubt that this close relationship between the Israel and the Russian President helped smooth over the shooting down of the Russian Il-20.
The Future of the Russian – Israeli Special Relationship
Although many Israelis were born in the Russia, speak Russian, eat at Russian restaurants, and read Russian language Israeli newspapers, that don’t mean they agree with Russian foreign policy. The widely differing policies of Russia and Israel in Syria prove that.
A similar analogy is found in the US. Many Americans are of Northern European/Germanic extraction. However, that doesn’t stop them from agreeing with President Trump when he disagrees with German Chancellor Merkel on policy.
In looking at the recent Russian migration to Israel, there are three differing groups with differing political views and global outlook.
The first is the group of Jews who migrated from the Soviet Union. Although older now, they are very anti-communist, religiously Jewish conservative, and usually vote Likud. They take a harder line, especially since the USSR was anti-Israel and pro-Arab during the Cold War. It is also worthy to note that many are less likely to be involved in public political activity. They are also more likely to be religiously observant Jews.
The post Cold War migration is less political. These Jews migrated for economic reasons. They are usually educated and came to the Israel for a better life. They aren’t observant Jews and in many cases are Christian. Ironically, about one in five of them have left Israel over the last quarter century for nations like the US.
The final group consists of those whose parents migrated to Israel when they were too young or were born in Israel to Russian parents. Although their cultural background is Russian, they have very different views of Israel and Russia. They are neither traditional Zionist Jews nor Russian Jews.
Another difference is that many of these immigrants have problems with the religious policies of the Likud government and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
As Haaretz noted in an article earlier this year, these Israelis are opposed to the religious laws imposed on them. “Having come from a part of the world where they were prohibited from practicing their religion, the overwhelming majority of these immigrants are not observant Jews. For them, Shabbat is a day to go to the beach, catch a movie or shop. For some, it is even a regular workday. Indeed, many of the stores open here on the Sabbath are run by these immigrants.”
While the older Russian Israelis may stay away from politics due to the limited political experience, they grew up under in the Soviet Union, the younger Russian Israelis don’t and are willing to protest.
Harretz notes, “Immigrants who came to Israel as children and the Israeli-born children of immigrants – has emerged. Members of what has come to be known as “Generation 1.5” came of age in Israel and are far less inclined to shy away from activism than their parents.”
“Janna Bosin and Svetlana Froimovich typify this generation. Both in their early forties, they immigrated to Israel as children from Ukraine. Stylishly dressed and coiffed, they are breaking for lunch at Cancun, an upscale Ashdod eatery that specializes in nonkosher delicacies like mussels…Asked whom they will vote for in the next election, both women respond as though the question were rhetorical. “Yesh Atid, obviously,” they say in unison. To drive home the point, Froimovich adds: “If I could cast 10 ballots, I would vote 10 times for Lapid.”
Yesh Atid is a centrist political party founded by Yair Lapid in 2012 that seeks to represent what it considers the center of Israeli society: the secular middle class. It is currently rivaling Likud as the biggest party in opinion polls.
These two young, Jewish ladies aren’t unusual. Traditionally, migrants who integrate into their new country’s culture lose their close ties to the “homeland.” Within a couple of generations, they aren’t much different than those who have lived in that country for generations.
Israel is experiencing this. As the generation that participate in the establishment of Israel dies off, Israelis view their country and the neighboring nations differently. Yesh Atid is pushing for negotiations with the Palestinians, the end of the current draft law that is the basis for the large Israeli military, halting construction of Israeli settlements in occupied territory and the end of corruption in government.
Today’s Israeli is more interested in economic opportunity and a good life than following a strict Jewish system of laws. That is something that Likud has been slow to understand. That means the Russian immigration they advocated a quarter century ago is very likely to be a factor in future electoral defeats.
The reality is that the Russian migration didn’t help the Likud as they hoped. It hasn’t made Israel adhere to Russian foreign policy. Nor has it created a majority that wants to remain waging war of aggression against its neighbors.
ASSESSING THE GLOBAL OPERATING ENVIRONMENT: Middle East
Oct 4, 2018
Strategically situated at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East has long been an important focus of United States foreign policy. U.S. security relationships in the region are built on pragmatism, shared security concerns, and economic interests, including large sales of U.S. arms to countries in the region that are seeking to defend themselves. The U.S. also maintains a long-term interest in the Middle East that is related to the region’s economic importance as the world’s primary source of oil and gas. The region is home to a wide array of cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, including Arabs, Jews, Kurds, Persians, and Turks, among others. It also is home to the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in addition to many smaller religions like the Bahá’í, Druze, Yazidi, and Zoroastrian faiths. The region contains many predominantly Muslim countries as well as the world’s only Jewish state.
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Assessing Threats to U.S. Vital Interests: Middle East
October 4, 2018
Radical Islamist terrorism in its many forms remains the most immediate global threat to the safety and security of U.S. citizens at home and abroad, and most of the actors posing terrorist threats originate in the greater Middle East. More broadly, threats to the U.S. homeland and to Americans abroad include terrorist threats from non-state actors such as al-Qaeda that use the ungoverned areas of the Middle East as bases from which to plan, train, equip, and launch attacks; terrorist threats from state-supported groups such as Hezbollah; and the developing ballistic missile threat from Iran. Although al-Qaeda has been damaged by targeted strikes that have killed key leaders in Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden, the terrorist network has evolved in a decentralized fashion, and regional affiliates continue to pose potent threats to the U.S. homeland. The regional al-Qaeda groups share the same long-term goals as the parent organization, but some have developed different priorities related to their local conflict environments.
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Why We Need a Space Force
By Todd Harrison
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 3, 2018
The Trump administration’s push to create a new military department, known as the Space Force, has generated a fair amount of skepticism and more than a few nerdy jokes. Despite being easy fodder for late-night comedians, the way in which the U.S. military and intelligence community are organized for space is a serious national security issue because the threats posed to U.S. space systems by other nations are real and growing. A Space Force is needed to consolidate authority and responsibility for national security space in a single chain of command; to build a robust cadre of space professionals who can develop space-centric strategy and doctrine; and to avoid the conflicts of interest inherent in the other Services that have short-changed space programs for decades. First, let’s get a few misconceptions out of the way. The Space Force has nothing to do with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), astronauts, protecting the planet from asteroids, or fighting aliens. This is about how we organize, train, and equip our existing space forces to protect U.S. national security interests here on Earth. And President Trump did not come up with the idea of creating an independent military department for space.
Read more at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/why-we-need-space-force
The War After the War
By MARC LYNCH and MAHA YAHYA
September 14, 2018
While none of the devastating wars and state failures which followed the Arab uprisings of 2011 has yet fully ended, international and expert attention is increasingly focused on the impending challenges of reconstruction, repatriation, and reconciliation. In January 2018, the Carnegie Middle East Center and the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) convened a workshop in Beirut to discuss these issues through an interdisciplinary and comparative lens. Those papers have now been published in the POMEPS Studies series as “The Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction.” It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of the destruction which these Middle Eastern and North African wars have left behind. Millions of people have been dispossessed and driven into exile at home or abroad. Infrastructure has been devastated, with many cities and towns utterly destroyed. National economies have evolved into local war economies. State and local institutions have been fundamentally reshaped. Communal polarization around sectarian or political identities has progressed to extreme levels. Entire communities have been severely impoverished as health and educational attainments have plummeted. And the individual trauma suffered by tens of millions of people afflicted by conflict and violence will have enduring psychological and developmental effects.”
Read more at: https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/77228
The U.S. Role in the Future of Iraq
By Mithal Al-Alusi
September 24, 2018
The United States of America has invested significant time and effort in Iraq over the last fifteen years, yet the Iraqi political process continues to falter. The damage of the country’s limited adoption of democratic values is continually demonstrated in each election cycle. This is especially complicated by the outsized role of Iraq’s Islamist political parties connected to Iran. Since these parties believe in the primacy of the Quran in governance and Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Velayat-e Faiqh, their goals are driven by regional concerns for the primacy of Iran rather than domestic stability and democracy—even treating democratic principles with a large degree of suspicion. Values of democratic equality such as those connected to women, child protection, human rights, and citizenship are often viewed with suspicion. These connections are complicated; Quds Force head Major General Qassem Soleimani has control over sizable Iraqi militias, and his dictates further contribute to the submission of these political parties to Iranian dictates. In contrast with Iran’s clear and continued engagement in Iraqi politics, U.S. interests in the future of Iraq remain opaque for many domestic observers. Though the United States has stated that the regional influence of Iran is one of its primary foreign policy concerns, these efforts are complicated by the history of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq.
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What to watch for in the 2018 midterm elections
By Norman J. Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
October 2, 2018
Of course, the main story for this election is the battle for control of the House and Senate, followed closely by key governorships in big states. But underlying this is the set of interesting regional battles that may help to define both the contest for the presidency in 2020 and the long-term electoral alignments in the country. Start with the so-called “blue wall” that crumbled for Democrats in 2016. Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and almost lost Minnesota. But this year, Democrats appear poised for a comeback, winning potentially a slew of seats for the House and leaving Scott Walker fighting for his survival as governor of Wisconsin. That may not erase the problems Democrats have with rural and exurban voters, along with some urban working-class whites in these states. But it would suggest that the Midwest states are not close to turning red, and that there are themes Democrats can use to recapture their wall.
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Mounzer A. Sleiman, Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor