|Netanyahu plays a Russian rope
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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