How to reconcile the new traps Moscow has set for Israeli jets operating against Iranian military targets in Syria with the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s almost affectionate tone in referring to his next meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Netanyahu like Donald Trump clearly believes that personal diplomacy at the highest level can move mountains in any dispute. How else to explain Netanyahu’s optimistic expectations of his (still undated) sit-down with Putin, which he voiced on the day – Monday, Oct. 8 – that Moscow announced the delivery of three battalion sets of S-300 air defense systems with 300 air defense missiles to Syria? Delivering another poke in Israel’s eye, Russia decided to man those systems with imported import Iranian teams (as DEBKAfile first revealed.)
On that Monday, Netanyahu announced that Israel would not give up its permanent sovereignty over the Golan, “which must be recognized by the international community as the bulwark for stability in the near region.” If Iran and Hizballah attained a foothold on this strategic plateau, they would soon overrun the shores of the Kineret (Sea of Galilee), he said. Both had repeatedly tried to create a force for attacking the Golan and Galilee, he said, but Israel had pushed them back.
He then turned to the Russian leader. “I know that President Putin understands my commitment to Israel’s’ security and also appreciates the importance I attach to the Golan,” he said confidently.
Two days later, a cold snub landed from Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly told reporters: “The status of the Golan Heights is determined by the resolutions of the UN Security Council. Changing this status bypassing the Security Council… would be a direct violation of these resolutions.”
Netanyahu has often been warned by his own intelligence advisers, as well as DEBKA’s security analysts, that he overdoes his visits to Putin, reads too much into their warm tenor and overestimates their areas of agreement. “Putin is a smiler,” says a senior member of Israel’s National Security Council. “But behind the bonhomie and good will is a liar. He may scatter promises, but neither he nor his minions intend to honor them.” Netanyahu’s worst mistake, another adviser said, is deluding himself that he is the only one who can convince Putin to make allowances for Israel’s security interests in his strategic planning, “He is wrong,” says the adviser. “Putin will never vary an iota from his set course or compromise in the slightest on his country’s strategic interests for the sake of Israel’s.”
The prime minister sees this, but insists, all the same, that whenever he picks up the phone for a date with Putin, he gets one. Their numerous and frequent tête-à-têtes, he says, give him a chance to badger Putin until maybe one day he keeps his promises.
In any case, he maintains, the Trump administration wants nothing to do with Middle East’s troubles, especially in areas of Russian military involvement. This leaves Israel with little choice but to maintain good relations with the Russian leader and Moscow’s military establishments.
Israeli leaders noted that, aside from reproaches, Washington stood aside when Russian sent S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton spoke of a “grave escalation.” And Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, called the missile deliveries a “needless escalation.” He described them as “an effort to cover the Iranian and Syrian regimes nefarious activities in Syria,” adding, “So, again, I think this is a needless, needless escalation.”
After that, Washington let the situation ride and Netanyahu was left hanging on the horns of a gnawing dilemma.
He refuses to go back on his pledge to keep up Israeli Air Force operations for curtailing Iran’s military expansion in Syria and its deepening military ties with the Lebanese Hizballah. At the same time, Netanyahu must keep the lid on his nearly month-long suspension of these operations since the Russian spy plane was downed by Syrian missiles on Sept. 17. Like the IAF command, he appreciates the magnified risk to Israeli jets of the newly-deployed Russian S-300 air defense systems in Syria. He is also frustrated by seeing Iran using this pause to ship enough arms to Syria, including precision missiles, to replace the supplies Israeli air strikes destroyed.
Looking for a way out of this predicament, the prime minister phoned Putin on Sunday, Oct. 7, hoping for an interview and an understanding to enable Israeli air operations to resume against Iranian targets, despite the S-300s. He won’t know if this hope is realistic until they meet, although the Russian leader appears to be in no hurry to fix a date. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is in the dark on two pressing issues:
- Will the Russian president agree to a new military accord for the IDF to go back to attacking Iranian targets, including the S-300 batteries manned by Iranian personnel?
- If he agrees, under what conditions? Would his terms for a revised military understanding be acceptable to Israel?
One thing is sure, our sources stress: Putin will not agree to restoring the almost unfettered rein which Israeli Air Force’s enjoyed in the last two years, with no restraints except for posting a heads-up through the deconfliction channel to the Russian Syrian command center.
Netanyahu needs to lower his expectations of an interview with Putin. Moscow’s actions and words since Sept. 17 lead to only one conclusion, say DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources: The Russians are determined to bring Israeli down a peg or two and teach the Netanyahu government and IDF how to respect Moscow’s game rules over and above their own.
This intent was articulated ironically by Alexander Zotov, former Russian ambassador to Damascus and political analyst. Speaking at a round table on the Syrian situation taking place in Moscow on Monday, Oct. 8, he commented: “There is a narrative in Israel among experts, among political analysists and in the media, that is fueled by the statements of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and even of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, that generally ‘we [Israel] ae not going to deviate from our course of responding to any actions by Iran and Hizballah which present a potential threat to us, and no one and nothing can stop us.” Pursuing this theme, Zotov said: “That is why many people in Israel think that there could be some kind of demonstrative attack, maybe at an imaginary facility, maybe far away from all those systems being deployed in Syria now, in order to avoid striking any facilities with Russian servicemen, in order to make it look like everything is fine and everything goes according to plan.”
The Russian expert then stressed that Israel must understand how risky it is to carry out such operations without coordination with Russia. And clearly not on equal terms. Moscow is working at present on fitting relations with Jerusalem into a new frame that accords with Putin’s overall strategy in Syria. In this chapter, Putin wants to see a different, more chastened, Israeli mind-set before moving on to discussing a new military coordination deal with Jerusalem for Syria.