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    Middle East
     Sep 15, 2009

Netanyahu plays a Russian rope trick
By Sreeram Chaulia

The day-long public disappearance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 7 had his country's gossip-mongers salivating. Many went to work on speculative theories about just why he suddenly vanished from the media's eye and official records. The strange disappearance of a head of government is, after all, no small scoop.

The initial alibi from the prime minister's military secretary - that he was "visiting a security facility" within the country - attempted to avert prying eyes in a country where the press corps dutifully obey military censorship laws. Netanyahu's aides believed that spinning the story of his inspection of a top-secret Mossad installation inside Israel would be enough to satiate the curious.

But this version soon tanked; and rumors multiplied (allegedly from disgruntled elements within Netanyahu's inner circle) that "Bibi", as he is popularly known, was on a sensitive diplomatic mission to a foreign country. The Palestinian daily al-Manar claimed that he flew to an undisclosed Arab state with which Israel has no formal relations and used the undercover route to preclude criticism from foreign-policy hawks at home.

A more credible narrative began emerging in tidbits that Netanyahu was actually in Moscow with top military advisers in tow. He is said to have borrowed a private plane from an Israeli business magnate for the clandestine 15-hour trip. The ambiguous responses to queries about this from both Russian and Israeli officials added fuel to the fire of guesswork.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said evasively, "We have seen these reports in various media, but there is nothing more I can tell you." The same source added, "I am not saying yes or no." Netanyahu's own office was tongue-tied and issued vague post hoc messages that distanced itself from the Mossad facility yarn and exculpated National Security Adviser Uzi Arad from spreading this apparent falsehood.

According to the leading Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Netanyahu was in Moscow to present concrete evidence to the Kremlin that Russian arms were making their way to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The Israeli agenda allegedly also included persuading Russia not to sell its S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.

The S-300 system has been bothering Israeli war planners for a while, particularly since the mysterious case of the "hijacked" Russian ship, the Arctic Sea, came to light in late July. Ostensibly carrying timber bound for Algeria, the vessel was reported to have been captured off the coast of Sweden by pirates and vanished until it was "rescued" by the Russian navy some 25 days later, near the Cape Verde Islands.

Since the waters of Scandinavia are among the safest for mercantile shipping and given the hush-hushing of the incident by the Russian government, strong suspicions emerged that the Arctic Sea had something more valuable on board. An anti-piracy official of the European Union as well as an unnamed general from the Russian navy suggested that the freighter was taking S-300 or Kh-55 missiles to Iran via an organized Russian crime syndicate. Mossad got into the act with hints that the Arctic Sea was transporting "a Russian air defense system for Iran".

After the Russian navy "retook" the ship and escorted it home, Moscow conducted an official enquiry and declared the "hijackers" to be eight ethnic Russians with criminal backgrounds who were simply chasing ransom money. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, termed the canard about the freighter's contraband missiles to Iran as "an absolute lie".

But informed insiders in the Israeli media kept insinuating that Mossad had either "tipped off" Moscow that it was tracking the covert missile supplies on the ship or, more colorfully, that Israeli intelligence hired ethnic Russian gangsters to abort the Arctic Sea's journey before it reached Iran.

Netanyahu's hidden dash to Moscow is being bandied about as a sequel to the oceanic missile-smuggling saga. If Netanyahu did go to Russia with evidence, it could have been used as a shaming device to compel his hosts not to beef up Iranian defenses. The Russian newspaper Kommersant even asserts that the Israelis were planning to attack Iran soon to stop its alleged nuclear program and that "Netanyahu decided to inform Kremlin of this".

A key question regarding Netanyahu's rope trick is why he resorted to a secret face-to-face with the Russians (presumably with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev or someone close to one of them) if he just wished to warn them or convey war plans. Could the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv or plain old telephonic communication not served that purpose?

The answer lies in the mounting mutual distrust between Israel and its longtime special ally, the United States, over restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. Since the Barack Obama administration has taken charge in Washington, unprecedented pressure has been applied on Israel to completely halt Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

So low is the confidence of Netanyahu's right-wing government in Obama that an internal memo by Nadav Tamir, the Israeli consul general in Boston, lamented recently that "the distance between us and the US government is causing strategic damage to Israel".
Racially insulting depictions of Obama in Arab headdress and as a Muslim who is partial to Palestinians have proliferated in Israel, especially among settlers adamantly defying the recalibrated American position. They reflect popular angst that the greatest insurance policy to aggressively pursue Israeli national interests - a blank check from Washington - is now outdated.

For the past several months, Netanyahu has been walking on pins and needles, trying to juggle Washington's demands to halt settlements and his own coalition's desire to alter facts on the ground demographically before any land-for-peace deal is signed with the Palestinians.

One old strategy of states that are losing the unconditional love of a former ally is to court a rival of that ally and force the ally to realize the horrible blunder it is committing. Netanyahu's veiled personal visit to Russia could be part of such a long-term hedging strategy against at least three or probably seven more years of Obama rule in Washington.

For decades, Israel has had a single vector foreign policy towards great powers, banking on total diplomatic and military cooperation of the US. But with relations with Washington at an all-time nadir, Tel Aviv is forced to seek new powerful friends like Russia.

Since Moscow continues to contest Washington in every theater - from Latin America and Central Asia to the Middle East - Netanyahu could be probing an opening to Russia that the US would not take lightly. If Russia can somehow be inveigled to act tougher on Iran for its nuclear standoff, Israel would find fresh room to keep the heat on Tehran.

Already, Israel-Russia defense ties are on an uptick after a breakthrough US$50 million agreement on transferring the Israel Aerospace Industries' unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which were used by Georgia against Russia in the war over the breakaway Georgian state of South Ossetia last year.

Netanyahu's Russian gambit is a balancing maneuver that is being done on the sly because of the sentiment in Tel Aviv that Obama cannot be trusted. Netanyahu undertook a cloaked personal mission possibly out of fear that US intelligence is preying harder on cable traffic or electronic communication between Israel and Russia. Even in the friendliest of times, American intelligence is known to have kept an eye on Israeli diplomatic correspondence and vice versa.

Netanyahu's decision to hoodwink his own public and media and fly in person to Russia must be understood in light of Israel's current paranoia about American policies in the Middle East.

With no less a figure than Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor grudgingly accepting that Netanyahu did fly to Russia on September 7, the cobwebs are slowly clearing from Israel's quest to counter the diplomatic isolation it is encountering in the Obama era.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.

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Arctic Sea - a serial absentee
(Sep 12, '09)

The truth is adrift with the Arctic Sea
(Aug 26, '09)



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