As Ariel Sharon perceptively observed, Vladimir Putin is a patriot and a nationalist, a man cognizant of Russia’s “profound culture”, and driven by “national honor…and the desire to restore the status of an immense empire with all its influence.” The Russian president is also pragmatic. He was polite and pleasant for the duration of his historic visit to Jerusalem—the consummate gentleman really. But when the niceties were over, he picked up his marbles and went to play with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
At best, Putin seemed tepid about Russian and Israeli ties. Rejected was Sharon’s request that Putin reconsider a decision to sell nuclear technology to Tehran and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. And rebuffed also was “Jerusalem’s bid for intelligence-sharing with Moscow.” As DEBKAfile has reported: “The Russians indicated they were open only to one-way traffic from Israel, but offered nothing of value in exchange.”
All a little baffling given how much the two countries have in common.
Russia supported the Jewish State at its inception. Israel is home to the “largest Russian minority in the Middle East”—one million Russian-speaking Israelis, whom Putin regards as “expatriates, exemplars of Russian culture, art, sport, language and education.” And there’s terrorism. Israelis and Russians live alongside terrorist societies.
Both Sharon and Putin were elected to be tough on terrorists. Russians voted for Putin because they have to put up with Shamil Basaev (a Chechen terrorist and advocate of an Islamist state in the Northern Caucasus); Israelis elected Sharon because they have to contend with the new Dalai Lama of Gaza, heir to Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Chechnya is a Shari’a-law dominated anarchy, whose chief export is terrorism—to Russian cities. Americans became familiar with the handiwork of Chechen terrorists in 2002, during a deadly hostage-taking at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. And again in 2004, with the attack on a school in Beslan in which hundreds of children were murdered. The country’s transformation into an Islamist terrorist training ground is nearly complete. Besides a thriving trade in weapons, drugs, stolen goods, and slaves, Chechnya has no economy. Due process and punishment take the form of court-ordered mutilations and public hangings.
In the Palestinian Authority it’s business as usual. The radicalization of this society has continued apace under Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor. The message of murder permeates every nook and cranny in the PA. In government, mosques, and madrasas Palestinians preach and teach that “Israel is a cancer spreading through the body of the Islamic nation,” and that Muslims must “finish off every Jew.” The July-17 election is predicted to be a shoo-in for Hamas.
Both Putin and Sharon, however, are expected to concede to those who maim and kill their civilians, while President Bush and the international community make no such allowances in prosecuting their war on terror. Both leaders are hectored by elements in the administration, Britain, and Europe about granting statehood to their terrorism-endorsing neighbors. Against insuperable odds, both are expected to trust terrorists and their fan base to stop butchering babies and embrace Jeffersonian democracy and a Bill of Rights (a fantasy says James L. Payne, in The Prospects for Democracy in High-Violence Societies).
Consequently, Putin is being badgered to pull back from the North Caucasus and ignore the caliphate under construction there; Sharon was recently told to dismantle a suburb of Jerusalem, no less—Maaleh Adumim—to make way for a suburb of “Hamastan.” Shorn eventually of Judea, Samaria, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem, he is being counted on to sit back and trust a Palestinian state comprising Fatah, its militant offshoot, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to deliver peace for land.
What other commonalities do Russia and Israel share? Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has received a great deal of aid from the U.S., aimed at stimulating market reform. Israel’s debt to America is incalculable. He who pays the piper calls the tune: Putin has to stand at attention as the administration admonishes him for allegedly sliding back into Stalinism. For their part, Israeli politicians have long since opted to sacrifice sovereignty rather than cut the Gordian Knot.
Let us clarify for the record that this is a broad-brush outline of what unites Russians and Israelis and why their leaders might have forged a more substantial relationship. It omits, for instance, that Russia is just now transitioning into democracy; whereas Israel has been a stable democracy since its founding, and remains a country under the rule of enlightened Western law, with a free media and liberal courts. By the assessment of The American Conservative, “Israel is the only nation whose civilian courts have such a broad jurisdiction over military actions” (March 14, 2005). The Chechens have been fighting for independence since the 15th century; whereas the Palestinian liberation movement is a contemporary—cynically calculating—project. Compared to Russia’s terrorist-fighting tactics, Israel, warts and all, is a paragon of restraint. In the two Chechen wars, the Russian army killed tens of thousands of Chechen civilians and displaced many more.
These differences notwithstanding, there were plenty of reasons for cooperation, if only to inject a new dynamic into the current imbalance of power in the world. But nothing transpired. And not because Putin was being hostile. On the contrary, he was sincerely nice, even keen to combat anti-Semitism in Russia. What his snub confirms is that Israel is weak. The country is no longer the regional power it once was. Had Sharon handed Putin Vladimir Gusinsky (an oligarch hiding in Israel) on a platter, the Russian would still have scampered to Ramallah to seal the sale of armored personnel carriers to the Palestinians.
Israel was not always strategically insignificant. For a brief period after the Six-Day War, observes Arieh Stav, “Israel ceased to be a provisory state, which constituted a political liability and became a strategic asset, to use State Department parlance.” Compelled by their American handlers and their own failings, Israeli leaders have since abandoned the national interest—and with it the very principles of international law.
By returning land to the aggressors—the Sinai first—Israel violated Nullum crimen sine poena, the imperative in international law to punish the aggressor. It continued to breach this principle—and its own national self-preservation—by signing and honoring agreements (Oslo I and II) with a terrorist organization (the PLO). Israel also flouted and continues to flout the “rights of necessity,” says Professor of International Law, Louis Rene Beres:
[T]his norm was explained with particular lucidity by none other than Thomas Jefferson. In his ‘Opinion on the French Treaties,’ written on April 28, 1793, Jefferson wrote: ‘The nation itself, bound necessarily to whatever its preservation and safety require, cannot enter into engagements contrary to its indispensable obligations.’
Israel apparently can and does—abandoning even its “indispensable obligation to endure.” For example, like his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas insists on “the right of return” of 4 million Arabs to Israel proper. The Palestinian “right of return” is a euphemism for the destruction of the Jewish State (and, with it, a bulwark against barbarism in the region). Yet Mahmoud Abbas is considered by Israel a “partner to peace.”
It’s now de rigueur for most Europeans, too many Britons, the Muslim world, the Israeli far Left and their soul mates in the U.S., the “executive committee of the Third World dictatorships” (Jeane Kirkpatrick’s coinage for the UN), university students the world over, and in some conservative circles, to depict Israel as the almighty architect of “American imperialism” in the Middle East. (Though no one can say who “moved” the world’s superpower to station troops in over 100 other countries across the world). When it comes to Israel, the logical power pyramid is mysteriously inverted so that a small nation is seen as wielding paranormal powers over a superpower.
Putin knows better. (So, evidently, does Hu Jintao, China’s President!) Intent on re-establishing a presence in the Middle East, Putin understands that strategic power lies not with a United States satellite—“The minuscule State of Israel hanging on to a bit of sand on the Mediterranean coast,” in Arieh Stav’s words—but with “a Muslim world, which stretches over two continents and 53 countries, among them 21 Arab states,” which is in possession of “half of the world’s oil reserves, almost limitless capability to purchase weapons, control of first-rate strategic centers and a predetermined majority in the UN.” (Because Muslims identify with the ummah, the Muslim world has always been squarely behind the Palestinians.)
The proof of Israel’s strategic insignificance is in, shall we say, the … Putin.
©2005 Ilana Mercer