The dynamics of the Israeli-American-Russian triangle

The aggressive American penetration of president George W. Bush’s regime into the fringes of the Middle East (the Afghanistan war of 2001) and to the heart of the region (the Iraq war, 2003) led to the reinforcement of Iran; Washington had removed its two main enemies. This also served as one of the factors behind the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, called for the advancement of democracy in the region. This policy was one of the significant factors behind the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the destabilization of Arab regimes, which were either abandoned by the US (Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt) or actually overthrown by Washington (Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya). The negative results of the process are still unfolding, for instance in Syria – a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and resulted in the displacement of millions.

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President Obama’s hesitant policy also led to the removal of the taboo on the use of chemical weapons and their return to the modern battlefield.

Despite his statement that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for America, Obama refrained from striking Syria after the Assad regime used such weapons against its citizens. Another legacy, even more difficult for Jerusalem, is the nuclear agreement with Iran, which despite the severe (if temporary) restrictions imposed on Teheran’s nuclear weapons development left two critical issues unaddressed: Iran’s ballistic missile program and, more importantly, its destabilizing efforts throughout the region.

The US leadership vacuum was exploited by Russia, which increased its military presence in Syria, in the process allowing Israel’s hostile northern neighbor to become a base of operations for Israel’s greatest enemies – Iran and Hezbollah. This difficult and complicated reality forced Jerusalem into a secondary dialogue with Moscow in parallel with the traditional, deep, stable and long-term strategic dialogue it holds with Washington, that will continue to strengthen in the future.

The successful strategic dialogue between Israel and Russia has enabled Jerusalem to maintain its interests in Syria and Lebanon in recent years while avoiding friction with Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Thus, while Israel has no substitute for its American strategic partner, it has managed to find a balance between Moscow and Washington.

Since US interests and strategy in the Middle East are not clear, Israel is forced to contend alone with the rising threats from its traditional enemies, especially Iran and Hezbollah; erstwhile allies who are now taking a firm and aggressive line against Jerusalem – especially Turkey; and also, and especially, the significant and threatening presence of a former superpower with ambitions to regain its former influence in the international arena – Putin’s Russia.

Israel hopes that the American attack (in cooperation with France and Britain) against Syria’s chemical weapons development and production sites in April 2018 is an indicator of Washington’s return to the region. If this is the case, Jerusalem will be able to rely on the United States, mainly in the context of Russian presence and involvement in Syria, and in turn that of Iran and its proxies (Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias imported to Syria by Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan).

However, if America’s absence in the Middle East continues, Israel will have to adhere to its current policy and preserve the diplomatic triangle it has been forging in recent years cautiously and wisely – preserving and nurturing the close strategic relationship with the US and simultaneously creating diplomatic and other channels with its new neighbor, Russia. Which of these two scenarios transpires depends more on Washington than Jerusalem.

The author, a geostrategist and expert on international security policy and the Middle East, is a member of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at IDC Herzliya.