Part 9 of “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity”
This is part nine of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel: Peril and Opportunity.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.
The Stalinist Legacy
Before there were name plates for RUSSIA on the tables of the Security Council, the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the various UN Commissions, there was those nameplates for the UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS. During those Cold War years (1945-1990) there was as well a penumbra of states, nominally independent, but in fact tightly-held by the USSR, that followed without deviation the line of the USSR in foreign policy matters.
Given how dramatic were the events that caused the Soviet Empire to disintegrate and the Soviet Union itself to dissolve, and given how earth-shattering were the issues that were believed to have been involved, it is striking how much continuity there is between the policies towards Israel pursued by the USSR and those pursued by its successor, the Russian Federation, whose undoubted leader today is Vladimir Putin. In both cases, we find a determination to have the Soviet or the Russian voice heard in every debate over Israel, a determination as well to appear in solidarity with the anti-Israel bloc at the UN General Assembly and on the many UN Commissions. When it comes down to action, however, there has always between a great gulf between the rock-hard anti-Israel, anti-Zionist (and frequently anti-Jewish) rhetoric and the practical applications of Russia’s energies.
Israel could not have come into the world as a legitimate nation without the assistance of Joseph Stalin. Under UN rules, the decision to partition the Mandate of Palestine was one that required support of two-thirds of the fifty-one members that it had in 1947. The United States supported the motion, butBritain did not. Of the Latin American states and the handful of Asian and Pacific states then in the UN most responded positively to the recommendations of the American delegation – mindful that good relations on such a matter as this would make their economic future easier. But all eleven states having Muslim majorities in 1947, as well as India which had a huge Muslim minority, did not go along. In this situation, the support of the Soviet Union and its satellites was essential.
As it turned out, creation of the State of Israel was the only major issue of the early Cold War period on which the two Superpowers supported each other’s position.
However, shortly after the dust settled on the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949, Stalin did the calculations all over again and abruptly changed the policy: Israel was henceforth denounced as a puppet of Western imperialism, foisted by international Jewry upon powerless Arabs and Muslims, the USSR put itself at the head of the anti-Israel caucus at the UN and, following the Six-Day War of 1967, led her satellites in withdrawing diplomatic recognition from Israel — a state of affairs which continued until the 1990s. Stalin’s motivation, in both of these mutually contradictory phases of his policy-making, was essentially negative – success being measured almost entirely in terms of the confusion that the policy would hopefully cause for the West.
There was in the 1950s much concern in the West that the Arab Middle East would prove fertile ground for Communism and would be clawed into the Soviet Empire by conversion of its masses to the Communist ideology. But afterwards it become clear that few Arabs were truly interested in Marxism-Leninism, and the effort to make it appear otherwise by subsidizing the kept-ideologues and Party hacks living in every Arab metropolis cost the Soviet citizen-taxpayer dearly. When the USSR was forced to give up financing its disciples, most of them re-tooled and became Muslim activists.
Putin’s Middle East Adventures
Putin imagines – and probably correctly, but who can tell? – that he has tapped into a deep reservoir of populist nostalgia for Empire – not nostalgia for the Empire of Stalin, which endured through the Cold War years cheek-by-jowl with NATO, but nostalgia for the days when Russian intellectuals were inspiring Russian Czars with talk of Moscow as the Third Rome. This spirit is akin to Mussolini’s nostalgia for the Empire of Rome, the spirit that lured him across the Mediterranean into Libya and its neighborhood and then into Abyssinia. We all know how that adventure ended.
Putin’s assertion of Russia’s right to be reckoned as major force in theMiddle East follows naturally from this long tradition. The Middle East is, after all, next door. And unlike the neighbours elsewhere – in Europe and in the Far East – the Middle East has for a couple of centuries been conspicuously lacking in candidates for great power status.
Putin realizes that the U.S. is today doing everything honorable to avoid asserting costly leadership in every major theater of the world. The failure of what had seemed to be a straightforward challenge – eliminating al-Qaeda’s rogues from Afghanistan and replacing the Isamist thugs who gave them hospitality there — was followed by the disintegration of the mission in Iraq. More recently we have endured the chaotic outcome of the intervention inLibya, the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and its replacement, through democratic method, by a leader of the major Islamist force in the land. The fantasies reared upon the Camp David agreements have dissipated. Everything that the U.S. has done in the hope of making the Middle East a better place in which to live has been swept off course by forces hell-bent on chaos.
On the face of it, Putin is resurrecting the main lines of the USSR’s policy in the Middle East, a policy conceived in the zero-sum spirit of the Cold War. That policy brought no real benefits to the USSR. Arab countries had little to sell that Russia needed; it needed subsidies from USSR in order to buy arms from the Soviet Union and its bloc. Diplomatically, it dragged the USSR onto the Arab and Muslim side of quarrels whose significance only Arabs and Muslims understood, using up credibility that the Kremlin needed in matters of more direct concern to the security and prosperity of the USSR and its empire. It was all a ruinous waste of Russian money and diplomacy and it won no continuing friendships wit the people. At the same time, Russia, unlike the Western nations, has had no need for Middle East oil, having an abundance of its own, which puts it in competition with Middle East suppliers for third party markets.
There is not a trace of gratitude left in the region for what Soviet Union imagined was its friendly, not to say philanthropic, policies during the Cold War years. Russia is now remembered as having provoked Egypt and Syria to take their bold initiatives against Israel in 1967 and in 1973 but then having failed to support them militarily at the time or diplomatically in the aftermath. In Arab minds, the Soviet Union is at least as guilty as the US of depriving them of victory over the Jews.
Russia’s Policy towards Syria
Putin’s present campaign to assert Russia’s influence in the Middle East has come down to its role in the debate about Syria. Long after the Arab League went over as a bloc to the anti-Assad cause, Russia went on obstructing efforts at the UN to find a solution to the bloody calamity in Syria. This could soon backfire against Russia. There is growing resentment of Russia’s role in the Arab world and contempt for Arab politicians who imagine that having Russiaas an ally is a benefit. [MEMRI (Middle East Media Review, Special Dispatch 4897 August 19, 2012: “Arab Criticism of Russia’s Support for Assad/Cartoons in the Arab Media.”] From the growing ranks of politicians in Syria on the opposition side voices are heard denouncing any and all who imagine that Russiais an ally of the Arab people. In an article published on the Syrian oppositionist website sooryoon.net on July 26, 2012, one such politician, Osama Al-Mallouhi calls on all those who love Syria to stir up discontent against the Putin regime within Russia itself, by exposing the corruption of the Putin regime to the world and by assisting Putin’s internal enemies by fair means and foul.
As Putin digs in his heels against the anti-Assad wing which has triumphed in the Muslim world, in the UN and in the Western world, he risks leaving Russia without allies anywhere in the neighbourhood. Relations with Turkey are jeopardized, as are any possibilities of closer ties with Cyprus or Greece.
But what can Russia gain by accelerating chaos in Syria and emboldening Islamic radicalism, a much more immediate threat to Russia than to us as it flourishes immediately next door to that part of its own territory where Muslims reside in greatest numbers? [“Syrian Oppositionist: Recruit Arabs, Muslims Living In Russia Against Putin,” MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 4899August 20, 2012.]
Russian – Israeli rapprochement
In contrast, Russia has benefitted in real terms from its dealings with Israel. Russian taste for figs and dates was satisfied aeons ago. Today what Russia and Russians think they need is to found in the hi-tech department – including military technology.
“The worse Russia’s relations with the Arab world, the better they will be with Israel,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Russia now finds itself at odds with almost all the Arab countries over Syria, and this could be a long-term trend.”As I write, representatives of the Russian and the Israeli governments are hard at work finding ways to improve trade and to remove impediments to cooperation on other matters. A turning-point in the relations came in June of this year, when President Putin went on a four-day visit to Israel. He visited holy places long venerated by Russian Orthodox Christians as well as to the Western Wall. Equally significantly, he was given opportunity to dedicate a monument to the Soviet Army forces killed in World War II. This Israeli gesture will be well received in Russia where it stands in contrast to the tendency of Russia’s former satellites in Eastern Europe to bad-mouth the old narrative about the Red Army as Liberator. [“Israel and Russia: Trade and restive Arab world outweigh differences on Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2012; “US, Russiabridge differences on Iran at nuke meet,” AP, September 12, 2012. ]
Russia and Israel share the sense that they alone fully understand the menace of Islamist extremism. In Israel’s case, Islamic terrorism has been part of daily life since long before the first day of its existence. In Russia’s case, it is a new, but ever growing reality.
Past and Present anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe
A major consideration affecting the Israel policy pursued by Russian leaders from Stalin to Putin has been the enduring anti-Semitic obsession of their citizens. When things went wrong, Communist leaders cranked up propaganda associating Jews with treason to Russia and to Communism. Harassment of Jews was validated as Jews prominent in the public life were made to serve as scapegoats in state trials. The Jewish Doctors’ Plot revealed by Stalin during the last months of his regime was the high point in this ongoing drama. Robert Wistrich, author of the most thorough academic survey of anti-Semitism in modern times, sums up the story of the “state-inspired anti-Semitism of the late Stalinist period:
Jews after 1945 were well suited to assuming this scapegoat role [That is, to be denounced as “cosmopolitan” traitors, tools of the West], given their ties with coreligionists in the West and in the new State of Israel, not to mention their vulnerability in well-entrenched popular anti-Semitism from below …. The palpable revival of anti-Semitism in eastern Europe [since 1990] puzzled most observers at the time…. [because it was] an anti-Semitism without Jews, [the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia having been almost entirely removed by the Holocaust.]
In today’s world, classic anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitism that caused measureless suffering for Jewish people in Europe, anti-Semitism which derived its energies and its rationalization from the “Christ-killer” indictment, is no longer admitted to by respectable people. But Judeophobia has not gone out of the world. It has instead been re-channeled as anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism provides rationalization and common rhetorical materials for the growing alliance between secular academics and Muslims dedicated ion to finishing the unfinished task of driving the Jews of Israel back into the sea. In the case ofRussia, classic European-Christian anti-Semitism, thriving today in the pages of the ever-popular Protocols of the Elders of Zionm, is being re-enforced by the equally virulent, anti-Semitism that flourishes in Muslim quarters within theRussian Federation and next door in Central Asia.
Today’s Anti-Semitism is a deadly enemy of Russia itself, because it is a force which seems capable of dissuading Russia’s political leaders from Middle East policies based upon realism. In light of this, the appropriate response of Vladimir Putin to Israel’s effort at rapprochement would be to take serious steps to curb the virulent anti-Semitic voices which are gaining popularity in Russia’s public life. [Robert Wistrich, Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (New York: Random House, 2010.]