Friend or foe ? – Russia’s West Jerusalem Consulate is very worrying

Ramzy Baroud

Middle East Monitor  /  August 22, 2023

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, a global cold war has also kicked in. 

As a strong ally of Washington and the home of a massive constituency of Russian, Ukrainian and East European Jews, it was only natural that Tel Aviv would be at the heart of the global conflict. 

When the war began, Israel was then ruled by an odd coalition, bringing together right, centre and left political parties. 

These parties were aware of the electoral importance of Israeli Russian Jews, who mostly arrived in Israel following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 90s. 

The sizable and rapidly growing constituency is largely anti-Moscow, as opinion public polls have demonstrated.

These demographics, in addition to Israel’s loyalty to Washington, complicated the Israeli position. 

On the one hand, Israel voted in favour of a United Nations resolution in March 2022 which condemned Russia. In response, Moscow expressed complete “disappointment” in Israel. 

Additionally, Israel opened its doors to Ukrainians and also Russian Jews who wanted to flee the war zones. 

On the other hand, then-Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, attempted to play the role of the mediator, holding meetings with Russian and Ukrainian Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.

Moreover, Israel, as a possible meeting place for future negotiations, was floated repeatedly, giving Israel a special status as a peacemaker, although in media news coverage only. 

This did not culminate in anything. In fact, it later resulted in multiple controversies. They included an ongoing diplomatic row over what Israel views as Ukraine’s veneration of Nazi collaborators. 

Another embarrassing episode followed allegations by Bennett that Zelensky had sought assurances through the Israeli leader personally that Putin would not kill him. Ukraine denied that such an event had taken place. 

Yet, while Bennett was trying to insert Israel into the conflict as an important global power, Yair Lapid, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, openly condemned Russia. 

The Israeli position may have reflected Israel’s political-demographic makeup. It could also be true that it was largely a political ploy, where Bennett attempted to pacify Moscow, while his coalition partner, Lapid, sought to reassure Washington. 

Despite occasional rebukes of Israel by the US and Russia, the language used by both sides was hardly comparable to threats levelled against other countries that refused to toe their line. 

In fact, the strongest of Moscow’s warnings to Israel came last February, when Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova told reporters that “all countries that supply weapons (to Ukraine) should understand that we will consider these (weapons) to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces.”

The reference in Zakharova’s statement was understood to be Israel, since it followed a CNN interview with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. 

In the interview, Netanyahu said that his country is “looking into” sending “other kinds of aid”, aside from humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. 

In the same interview, Netanyahu referred to Tel Aviv’s relationship with Moscow as “complex”, precisely because of their conflicting interests in Syria, and Moscow’s strong ties to Tehran, Israel’s arch-enemy in the region. 

Unlike the previous two prime ministers, Bennett and Lapid, Netanyahu was keen on maintaining a degree of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war and the resulting global conflict.

Whether Netanyahu was sincere or not, it seems that Moscow is far more comfortable with Tel Aviv’s new position than those of the previous governments.

For example, in July 2022, Russia’s Justice Ministry declared a legal war on the ‘Jewish Agency for Israel’, whose mission, starting a century ago, has been to facilitate Jewish immigration to Palestine and, later, Israel. 

The Russian move was clearly political, meant to send a strong message to Israel that Russia has many tools at its disposal should Israel veer too much into the Ukrainian side. 

Israel responded by bombing Syria at a higher frequency than before, to send a message back to Moscow that it, too, has options. 

The truth is the legal measures against the Jewish Agency did raise serious alarm bells in Israel. It demonstrates Russia’s seriousness in countering Israel’s politicking and mixed agendas. 

Still, the rift between Russia and Israel is yet to have any direct positive impact on Palestinians. There are reasons for this. 

One, historically, Russia’s, and previously the Soviet Union’s view of Israel has been based on Moscow’s own political priorities.

Two, Russia’s foreign policy discourse, in recent decades, has been largely tied to the collective Arab stance towards Tel Aviv. This was illustrated in the severing of ties between Moscow and Tel Aviv during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the resumption of ties during the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab peace talks in 1991.

The absence of a united Arab position regarding Palestine now makes a stronger Russian push against the Israeli occupation of little urgency. 

Three, the Palestinian leadership has mostly failed to navigate the geopolitical spaces which opened since the Russia-Ukraine war, therefore rendering itself largely irrelevant to Russia’s political calculations. 

In fact, as soon as Israel began adopting a consistent and less aggressive position on the Russia-Ukraine war, it began reaping the rewards. 

In July, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, celebrated the “diplomatic achievement” of his country following a Russian decision to open consulate offices in West Jerusalem. 

The surprising announcement was coupled with the use, by some Russian government-funded media, of the term ‘West Jerusalem’ instead of Tel Aviv, to refer to the capital of Israel. 

It could be argued that the Russian stance on Palestine remains strong and that Russia’s concessions to Israel are likely temporary, merely necessitated by the war. 

Indeed, this could be the case, especially if we keep in mind the strong pro-Arab constituency in the Kremlin and the Duma. 

It is also possible – in fact, true – that Russia’s foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine at the present time is entirely motivated by Russian priorities. 

This means that Moscow cannot be taken for granted as a Palestinian ally, and an outright recognition by Moscow of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not entirely off the table. 

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle; his latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak out