A giant Israeli Likud Party election banner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, its Hebrew caption reading 'Netanyahu, in another league,' in the city of Tel Aviv. Photo: AFP/Jack Guez

Israel next week will host Russian President Vladimir Putin, fresh off his visit to Damascus, a visit that could bridge or expose growing gaps between the two states in the Middle East.

The January 3 assassination of Qassem Soleimani and fresh anti-government protests in Iran have persuaded the top brass in the Israeli military to amp up the pressure on the Iranian presence in neighboring Syria.

They consider the assassination a game-changer that has placed the Iranians on the back foot and has put their presence in the Levant into disarray. According to sources in the Defense Ministry, new minister Naftali Bennet is determined to throw Iran out of Syria altogether. 

In the wake of the assassination, Putin headed to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Russians have decried the killing of a senior Iranian official as a violation of sovereignty, but also stand to benefit from the elimination of the powerful general as a post-ISIS landscape takes shape.

When Putin arrives in Israel, talks will undoubtedly center on the new strategy for Syria, with the case of a jailed Israeli in a Russian prison serving as a litmus test of relations.

In recent years, Israel has been trying to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria. Israel cannot risk a ground invasion of the country and airpower rarely achieves strategic goals on its own.

Diplomacy with Putin is therefore critical, as only Russia and its ally Syria can curtail the influence of Tehran on the Israeli border. Without it, Israel could face its nightmare scenario: a strong and deeply entrenched Iranian presence in Syria protected by a robust Russian strategic umbrella.

In order to facilitate Putin’s visit, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday released two Syrian prisoners. The talks are expected to be tough as Putin is likely unhappy with Israeli plans for escalation and may protest the attack on the Syrian T4 airbase which took place on Tuesday. 

Removing Syria sanctions

Over the course of the eight-year Syrian civil war, Israel has conducted more than 1,000 sorties, which it says have targeted Iranian military bases or arms shipments destined for Hezbollah.

Moscow has tolerated Israeli security concerns and accepted that the sovereignty of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would be violated. In return, it has expected diplomatic support for its ambitions to stabilize the Assad government.

An official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Asia Times that Putin expects Israeli assistance in removing Western sanctions on the Assad regime, something Israel has thus far been unable to provide.

“Russia overestimates our influence on the policies of the US and the EU,” the source said.

The matter has taken on an even greater significance in recent months, as the Russian strategy has shifted from defeating rebel groups to the stabilization of the Assad regime throughout the country.

Following a series of Israeli bombings in the Damascus area in November, the Kremlin complained the operation was “counteracting our efforts to control the situation” and had “increased tensions and the potential for conflict around Syria.”

To leave no doubt of the seriousness with which Russia regards continuing Israeli attacks, the statement added that “these events have caused great concern and indignation in Moscow.”

In an effort to curtail the freedom of operation enjoyed by the Israeli Air Force, the Russian Foreign Ministry revealed that “Israeli fighter jets reportedly crossed Iraqi and Jordanian airspace” in order to carry out some of the attacks.

When that did not curtail Israeli attacks, the response of the Kremlin escalated. According to releases in the Russian and Israeli media, two Russian Su-35 fighter jets were sent to intercept a planned Israeli strike in December on the T-4 airbase in southern Syria, forcing the Israeli pilots to return to base.

On Tuesday, Syrian state media reported that Israel had finally carried out its desired attack on the T-4 base.

Campaigning with Putin

Netanyahu’s refusal to name an ambassador to Moscow during this fraught period has led to criticism at home.

Speculation is rife the post is being held vacant in order to be used to reward a major supporter in his upcoming election campaign, even as he runs on his relationship with Russia.

During an election campaign this summer, a billboard visible to thousands of Israelis commuting daily on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway showed Netanyahu together with Vladimir Putin.

In an effort to attract Russian speaking voters and highlight the prime minister’s diplomatic acumen, it showed the two leaders shaking hands, along with the slogan “Netanyahu: In a league of his own.”

The prime minister recently cemented his role as leader of the Likud party, but faces a tougher challenge in fresh general elections scheduled for March, where the Likud is behind rival Blue and White in the polls.

With American influence in the Middle East waning considerably, relations with the increasingly influential Russians take on a supreme strategic significance. For Netanyahu, now is a critical time to reassure voters that ties with the Kremlin will endure under his watch. 

The jailing of an Israeli citizen in Russia now puts that relationship to the test.

Israeli jailed in Russia

In October this year Naama Issachar, a 26-year-old Israeli citizen, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for carrying 9.5 grams of marijuana while on a stopover in Moscow between India and Israel. While she also possessed American nationality, the arrest and sentence appeared to be a symptom of a deteriorating Israeli-Russian bilateral relationship.

The 26-year-old was initially charged with cannabis possession, but the charge was upgraded in May to smuggling drugs into Russia in correlation with the Israeli decision to extradite a Russian hacker to the United States.

There is little doubt that the dogged Russian pursuit of a severe penalty in this minor case has been driven by geopolitical concerns rather than judicial ones. As if to prove this, it was reported earlier in the week that 46 Israeli citizens were detained for questioning at Domodedovo airport, some for several days.

Netanyahu has discussed the Issachar case with Putin more than once. In December, he vowed that “I will bring Naama Issachar home.”

The denial of her appeal in a country not known for the independence of its judiciary could thus be seen as a slap in the face for the prime minister as he stands for re-election. Her release could signal a breakthrough.

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