Mr Netanyahu Goes to Moscow, Reshuffles His Mid East Cards
With impeccable timing, the Kremlin announced Tuesday, Nov. 5 that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would visit Moscow for a brief working session with President Vladimir Putin, almost to the minute that US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel.
Using the same timepiece, the Russians announced the deployment in the Mediterranean of two large Pacific fleet warships, the Varyag “aircraft missile hunter” and the Pytotr Veliky nuclear-powered cruiser, Sunday, Nov. 4, as Kerry touched down in Cairo to kick off his nine-nation Middle East tour.
Netanyahu will be the second leader of an important American ally hosted in Moscow in the last five months. The first was Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, Director of Saudi General Intelligence and former ambassador to Washington, who conferred with Putin in Moscow on July 31.
When the rich rewards of Bandar’s visit began to unfold – a major Russian-Egyptian arms transaction and the prospect of a Putin state visit to Cairo – Netanyahu’s advisers began pestering him to stop ignoring Russia’s expanding influence in two key Middle East arenas, Iran and Syria.
He should get himself invited to Moscow, they said. If President Barack Obama can do business with Putin and give him a free playing field in the Middle East, there is no reason for Israel to stand idle on the sidelines.
Netanyahu, although depicted by Western media as a hardliner, is a cautious mover and rarely takes chances. He took time to digest the advice of his aides.
Obama pulls up US stakes in the Middle East
In some of the secret encounters taking place regularly in Amman between Israeli Mossad and senior Saudi intelligence officials, a favorite topic was the Obama administration’s apparent indifference to the inroads Russia was making on American influence in the region. Under the impetus provided by the deal between Bandar and Putin, Moscow was climbing back to its old Cold War position in the most populous Arab nation, Egypt.
The Saudi side offered two possible explanations for Washington’s unconcern:
1. For Obama, Russia was the lesser of three evils, the other two being Iran or Al Qaeda.
2. He was deep into the process of pulling up US stakes in the Middle East.
The Israeli prime minister ordered his national security advisers to try and find out the extent of the administration’s abdication from involvement in Middle East affairs. The Israeli and American experts they consulted, including American military figures, reached the same conclusion as the Saudis – namely, that President Obama had lost interest in the region at large, excepting only for Iran and its nuclear program and the war on Al Qaeda.
The president had little sympathy to spare for the region’s trouble spots and issues, including Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf emirates and the Palestinians. He decided that it was time for them to learn to to deal with their own woes without involving America.
Let Russia take over
Obama therefore did not mind Russia spreading its political and military wings across the Middle East. Anyway, he and Putin were in close rapport on these issues and, if US interests as a power were infringed, he would sort the problem out directly with Putin, in the same way as the pair were settling the Syrian and Iranian issues between them.
(Read the separate item on Moscow I as the replacement for Geneva II)
An issue that was once a critical in US policy-making, coordinating international oil prices with the Arab oil kingdoms and emirates, has also receded as an overriding feature of US-Arab ties. According to the evaluations put before the Israeli prime minister, the Obama administration has decided to put the price of oil in a box separate from other issues: The US can continue to coordinate oil prices with Saudi Arabia without being dragging into the region’s disorders.
High-ranking Saudi officials confirmed to their Israeli counterparts that their own contacts in Washington had confirmed those very conclusions and made no attempt to qualify them.
For months, Israel’s government, intelligence and military policy-makers watched the Obama administration pulling in its international horns with astonished disbelief. Only a few top officials grasped that the environment in which Israeli operated had changed unrecognizably, sweeping away the fundamental principles which had been the bedrock of its policies.
America also folds its tents in Central Asia
During October, Israeli representatives came up against the same American pattern of conduct in Central Asia. The Obama administration was seen pulling up roots not just in the Middle East, but also removing itself from the Caspian coastal nations and Iran’s neighbors. This discovery struck Israel with the most force in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, where Jerusalem’s strategic, military, intelligence and economic interests were closely bound with the US presence in the neighborhood.
When the Americans were seen packing up their military bases in Central Asia while posing no resistance to the Russians moving in, it was finally borne in on Jerusalem, DEBKA Weekly’s sources confirm, that Israel had better start reshuffling its markers in two world regions vital to its interests.
When Netanyahu said recently that, if necessary, Israel would know how to act on its own, he was not just talking about a military strike on Iran, but referring obliquely to Washington’s new posture. He was saying he had digested the fact that Obama’s America expected Israel, like the rest of the Middle East governments, to take charge of its own problems without calling on Washington for help.