Essay One: “A Brief History of Relations between Israel and Russia During the Years of the Cold War”
In a previous essay (“Israel Finds Opportunity in the Ukraine Crisis,” http://www.thebayviewreview.com, June 5, 2014), I reviewed Israel’s efforts over recent weeks to triangulate between Russia and the United States on what the Americans (but not the Israelis) regard as the geopolitical issue of the day – Russia’s intrusions into Ukraine and its implications for NATO. Many commentators in America and perhaps even more in Israel have suggested that Israel’s behaviour in this matter amounts to violation of sacred commitments undertaken by Israel on behalf of the Free World during the Cold War. Others allow that, while there may be cynicism in Israel’s phoning in sick when its longtime ally needed its vote at the UN, account must be taken of recent provocations coming from the American side.
Just a few months ago, the Obama government deeply wounded the Netanyahu government by requiring it to sign onto the most recent and possibly the most futile round of the Peace Talks, even while requiring Israel to pay for this privilege of keeping the company of Abbas’s negotiators by releasing around two hundred terrorists from her prisons “as a gesture of goodwill.” While Netanyahu’s government was still smarting from that humiliation, the Obama government added one more for good measure, by announcing its decision to hold out the hand of fellowship to Hamas. (See, “The Sigh of Relief Heard ‘Round the World,” http://www.thebayvieweview, June 11, 2014.) Each step in this recent history of crumbling U.S./Israel relations has occasioned some gesture of cooperation between Israel and Russia.
But is it necessary, as so many seem to think it is, to frame these recent developments as another chapter in “The Cold War?”
In the Days When Stalin Smiled Upon Israel. 1948-1950.
It was never necessary that the Middle East should be a theatre of the Cold War. The United States and the USSR both actively assisted the birth of the State of Israel. The story of Harry Truman’s quick recognition to the new State of Israel is well known, and the enduring significance of that gesture is generally appreciated. But few people recall today the equally-important fact that the State of Israel could not have come into the world without the active efforts on its behalf of Joseph Stalin — who, after all, held one of the Five Vetoes at the Security Council, as Russia does today. In fact, the 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.
In his memoirs, Abba Eban, who represented Israel at the United Nations and was present on that day when the USSR announced its support of Partition, suggested that “there was something almost messianic in this convergence of American and Soviet ideas.” It was hoped at the time that this “convergence” on the issue of Partition of the Palestine Mandate would become the template for the diplomacy of the future: the two Superpowers would stand at the head of the majority of the nations of the world, setting the example of cooperation and compromise, creating order out of the disorders left by centuries of regional and tribal conflict. But it was not to be.
Truman, Stalin and Ben-Gurion.
During the first two years or so of Israel’s independent life, the USSR seemed to be trying harder than the United States to be Israel’s friend. While American Zionists were still plotting to find ways around the official U.S. embargo on bringing weapons onto the scene of the first Arab-Israeli War, Israel was purchasing life-saving weapons from Czecho-Slovakia – a transaction that required Stalin’s approval. During these same months, many Americans calculated that Israel might be getting ready to align itself with Russia and Russia’s bloc at the UN.
At that time, Israel was governed by a leftist-coalition presided over by David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai (Palestine Workers Party.) Many in the Congress of the United States were deeply suspicious of declared Socialists, especially those of Eastern European origin, like Ben-Gurion. The menace of domestic and international communism was consuming the attention of several Congressional committees. Students of politics in those days all spoke in terms of a spectrum whose Left-end extended from self-styled moderate Socialists in the middle through a nettle of Marxists, quasi-Marxists, Trotskyites, fellow-travelers of many stripes, all the way to outright Stalinists. Most Democrats and most Republican agreed that those who called themselves Socialists were really just limp-wristed Communists. Not until the first two or three years of post-War political life had gone by did it begin to register with most Americans that among the fiercest anti-Communists in European politics were the British and the French Socialists. Prime Minister Attlee and his Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin were at least as anti-Stalinist, in thought and indeed, as Winston Churchill was.
Likewise, it took a while for Ben-Gurion and his government to win their spurs with American opinion as authentic allies in the Cold War against Stalin. Ben-Gurion’s categorical alignment of Israel with Truman’s interpretation of Russian behavior in Europe and in Korea brought down much hissing and booing from other Israeli parties in the Knesset and in the Israeli press, but without this steadfast performance Israel could not have overcome the suspicion of the American Congress. “Since then,” said the Jerusalem Post, just a few days ago: “Israel has been routinely taken for granted as unquestionably in America’s pocket.”
But them days ain’t no more – as Israel’s recent abandonment of the American delegation at the UN in the matter of Ukraine painfully illustrates. In face of this reality, says the Jerusalem Post, “There is no shame in taking advantage for now of Putin’s evident aim to restore his country’s superpower status… even if we win nothing more than a bit more time and some limited leverage.”
Stalin Dumps the Jews for the Arabs.
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 “Cosmopolitanism” (international Jewry) upon defenseless Arabs and Muslims. Israel henceforth was counted among the issues that caused the greatest friction between the Superpowers. Stalin and his successors made grandiose overtures of goodwill towards the first post-colonial generation of Arab politicians everywhere in the Middle East. Syria and Iraq became virtual Soviet pawns, while Nasser of Egypt was kept on a very short leash by mutual defense agreements enriched by the virtual gift of an air-force and an Army equipped and trained by the USSR. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, the USSR and its satellites withdrew diplomatic recognition of Israel — a state of affairs which continued until the Soviet Empire collapsed.
Many in the West feared that the Arab world was becoming fertile ground for Communism and that the new Arab nations would be clawed into the Soviet Empire by conversion of its masses to the ideology. But very few Arabs were truly interested in Marxism-Leninism; after 1989, when the USSR was no longer around to finance disciples, most of them took all the Marxist-Leninist literature off their shelves and became Muslim activists.
There is not a trace of gratitude left today among Arab politicians, in or out of office, for what the Soviet Union imagined was its friendly, not to say philanthropic, policies during the Cold War years. Russia is now remembered as a trouble-maker who provoked Egypt and Syria to take their bold initiatives against Israel in 1967 and in 1973 but 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.
During the crucial first forty years of Israel’s life, both American and Soviet policy towards it were distorted by determination to see the Middle East in the Cold War contest. Truman had detected the earliest signs of Soviet determination to expand its empire beyond Europe in Greece, Turkey and Iran – the “Northern Tier,” as the geopolitical jargon ran in those days. The Truman Doctrine was designed to meet this challenge. Obviously, the next set of victims of Soviet Imperialism must be the states that neighbored upon Israel – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Policy-makers in the State and Defense Departments pondered maps of the region and then set out to the region, seeking to persuade Israel that it had value in the eyes of Americans because it was so obviously a key figure in the Middle East Theatre of the Cold War.
Some in Israel imagine that American Cold War thinking has been good for Israel – and by and large it has –until now. It led, after all, to Israel’s becoming the principal recipient of US aid – amounting to about 2 billion dollars a year. But unfortunately it reduced diplomatic options for Israel.
There never was any legitimacy to the notion that Israel could not be friendly to both the US and the USSR/Russia.
Practical Collaboration Between Russia and Israel.
Even during those decades when the USSR was pouring the money of its own citizens into one-sided trade pacts, military assistance pacts, cultural exchange agreements and so on with Arab states, and even while it was leading the chorus of denunciation of Zionists at the UN, Russia was benefitting 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.”
Russia As Successor –State to the USSR.
Now that the First Cold War is over we must ask whether anything is to be gained by either of the primary antagonists by pretending to be champions of two irreconcilable camps in the Middle East. Certainly Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to get this very point across to Israel.
With respect to our theme – present Israel/Russia relations — the principal difference between Putin and the last of his Communist predecessors, Brezhnev and Gorbachev – is that Putin has thrown off the blinkers of the Cold War and is now free to recalculate Russia’s interests in terms that derive not from memories of Cold War — the days when Stalin was forced to abandon the prospect of expansion of Russia’s influence into West – and take up the ancient legacy of the days when Russia had one of the world’s great empires.