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  March 14, 2017

Russian, U.S. Geopolitical Interests in Growing Tension with Netanyahu's Political Self-Interest

Russia and the United States are in a strong position to protect their respective geopolitical interests in spite of Netanyahu's attempts at political self-preservation, says TRNN's Shir Hever
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Shir Hever is an economist working at The Real News Network. His economic research focuses on Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory; international aid to the Palestinians and to Israel; the effects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories on the Israeli economy; and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel. His first book: Political Economy of Israel's Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation, was published by Pluto Press.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

On Thursday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Unlike most such meetings between the two, this one was advertised publically, and Netanyahu flew with a large delegation; proudly expressed the meeting went well.

Is this a result of the close ties between Russia and the Trump Administration? On to talk about this with me is Shir Hever. Shir is our correspondent on the Middle East, but based in Heidelberg, Germany, at the moment. Thanks for joining us, Shir.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, there's a great collaboration between Russia and Iran, particularly when it comes to Syria at the moment. And on the global stage as well, Iran can rely on the support of Russia. Now, this is interesting, given that Iran is Israel's relentless enemy. How does this all play out, in terms of politics, in Israel?

SHIR HEVER: Yeah, well I think the alliance between Russia and Iran, or it's not exactly an alliance, more like patronage -- is very important to Russia. It opens up a lot of strategic opportunities for Russia, to access the Mediterranean through military bases in Syria, as well as Iran being one of the major customers of Russian military hardware.

So, that is a serious obstacle, but I don't think that Iran is an enemy of Israel. I think Israel is an enemy of Iran. And more specifically, it's Israel's Prime Minister, Netanyahu, who's an enemy of Iran, because overall in Israel there is no real reason for Israel to oppose Iran. The only issue, is that the Hezbollah which is supported by Iran. The Hezbollah, which is a political party in Lebanon, which is an armed political party, and very active in the civil war in Syria, has also fought several rounds with Israel.

But at the moment, there's actually no direct confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, because Hezbollah is engaged in Syria, like I said. So, for Netanyahu this is important for his political career, because he doesn't really promise anything to his voters in Israel, except fighting against Iran. And the only reason that he can get re-elected, is by scaring people, and telling them Iran is close to achieving nuclear capabilities.

And so, his ticket is to try to get the U.S. to cancel the Iran Nuclear Deal. And I don't think he's going to be able to get Putin to change his positions on Iran, because Putin also fully understands that this is a personal issue for Netanyahu, and not a long-term strategy of Israel.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And what is Netanyahu's strategy here? I mean, in the past Netanyahu has gone to Russia for various conversations about trade, and of course, being two arms producers, there's a lot to talk about. But given Netanyahu's recent trip to the U.S., and the close collaboration Netanyahu has with the Trump Administration, what does all of this mean, in terms of relations with Russia, and the U.S.?

SHIR HEVER: Well, Netanyahu is trying to bring to the table this notion that Israel is not just one state in the Middle East, but actually a leader of some kind of invisible coalition, which Israeli security officials call the Sunni coalition. And this so-called Sunni coalition is supposed to include Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and Egypt, and the Gulf States.

And Israel is a sort of leader of that coalition in the minds of those Israeli officials, and maybe in the mind of Netanyahu as well. I don't think that this is really how it works. I think that all of these countries have their own interests, and there are a lot of reasons within Israel's own political system that makes it impossible for Israel to actually act as a leader of such a coalition. Because there are simply outright racist politicians in Israel, who are not capable of, in terms of their relations with their own voters, with their own constituency, to speak in positive terms about Arab leaders.

So, that means that they consider Egypt, for example, to be an enemy state, even though there's a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and they collaborate quite closely. So, Netanyahu is bringing this to the table as if Israel controls that kind of coalition. And you also mentioned that both countries are arms producers.

That is absolutely true, but they're actually fierce competitors in the arms industry, because the kinds of weaponry, the kinds of systems that are produced by Russia, are in fact incompatible with Israeli technology. Israeli technology is built according to U.S. standards, and combines with U.S. military systems.

So, for example, if the U.S. is producing a tank, or an airplane, Israeli companies would often produce navigating systems, or targeting systems, for that particular tank, or airplane. So, those don't work so well with Russian technology, and therefore, the countries are competing with each other. And I think that also creates a certain distance between the two countries. And I think Putin knows very well that if Israel tries to come too close to Russia, at some point the United States can always just pull on the leash, and stop them.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And finally, Shir, what is the role of the U.S. in all of this? Will the U.S. just stand idly by and let Netanyahu get closer to Russia? Or is this a part of their strategy?

SHIR HEVER: Well, I don't know if this is really a part of their strategy. See, that's a little... It's a little bit conspiratorial to think that somehow, within the U.S. Administration, there are actually spies for Putin, and they're his puppets, in such a way that they're going to turn a blind eye when the whole alliance coalition, in the Middle East, will shift in Russia's favor, and against the United States. That I don't think is happening.

And I think what... Part of the story is that Netanyahu appointed a new Minister of Defense recently, Avigdor Lieberman. Avigdor Lieberman is from Moldavia. He speaks fluent Russian, and he says, at least that he's a friend of Putin, and that they are on friendly terms with each other. And Lieberman's said a few times that maybe Israel can build this coalition with the East, with Russia, and the East European countries, in order to replace its alliance with the West. Mainly because he's concerned that -- not so much the United States -- but Europe and European Union, are turning a cold shoulder to Israel, in relation to the violation of human rights, and international law, in the Occupied Territory.

So, Russia doesnÂ’t care about that, or so Lieberman believes, and maybe this alliance can be shifted. That is not so simple. Already we see that Israeli companies, especially agricultural companies, are over-stepping the sanctions imposed by the European Union, and by the United States, on Russia, because of the war in the Ukraine. And are selling to Russia, products that they're not able to obtain from Europe anymore.

This is a nice windfall for Israeli companies. But as everybody understands, this is a very short-term thing, because at some point, the European Union can easily just downgrade the trade relations it has with Israel, and force Israel to toe the line and accept the sanctions. And the United States can always just delay, or suspend, the military aid to Israel. And that would be a major strike to the Israeli military capabilities.

So, they have the option, at any moment, to stop it, as long as Netanyahu is doing this for his internal popularity purposes within Israel. I think nobody cares, but when it comes to a point where, for example, Netanyahu would reach some kind agreement with Putin, regarding Syria, that is not acceptable to the United States, then we will see them putting their foot down.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Shir, I thank you so much for joining us and for your analysis, which will be ongoing here. Shir, as you know is a regular commentator on the Middle East. Thank you so much for joining us, Shir.

SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.




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