Some legitimately important, real world geopolitical news came out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest jaunt to Moscow, including the minor bombshell that Russian president Vladimir Putin would consider admitting Israel to the Eurasian Customs Union, his rival to the now-embattled European Union. But the most dramatic development from the trip, which focused on the ongoing conflict in Syria, was largely symbolic.
As The Times of Israel reported, during his visit Netanyahu formally received a Magach-3 tank—Netanyahu thanked Putin for the “warm humanitarian gesture”—that the Syrian military captured during the battle of Sultan Yacoub, just four days after Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In one of the worst defeats in the IDF’s history, the Syrian army surrounded an Israeli tank column during an IDF assault on Syrian positions in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Thirty Israeli soldiers were killed; three were captured and then paraded in Damascus before being disappeared by the regime of president Hafez al-Assad. The IDF also lost abandoned several tanks, one of which was sent to the Syrians’ Soviet allies in Moscow, in order to study Israeli armored vehicle design. All it took was the collapse of the Soviet Union, the near-collapse of the Assad regime, and the U.S.’s strategic pivot away from the Middle East for the tank to complete its three-and-a-half decade round-trip back to Israeli soil.
Putin’s Russia is under U.S. and EU sanctions, and mounted a military intervention that’s partially responsible for preserving the murderous government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Still, pursuing closer relations with Russia—the kind that can be cemented with such unmistakable acts of diplomatic theater as the tank’s return—is an eminently rational move from Israel’s perspective.
Israel borders an anarchic Syria in which Russia is one of the primary military and diplomatic players. Given the presence of the Russian air force in Syria, Israel needs a degree of practical cooperation with Moscow in order to maintain the option of striking Hezbollah targets inside of its northern neighbor—most notably, the suspected December 2015 Israeli airstrike on Damascus that killed Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar came just a few weeks after a reported Israeli-Russian “deconfliction” agreement on aerial operations in the country. Israel needs Russia’s help in quarantining Syria’s chaos.
A closer relationship with Russia also underscores shifting realities both inside and outside of Israel. After last month’s Israeli cabinet reshuffle, which elevated the staunchly nationalist and Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman to defense minister, Israel has about an especially right-wing and internationally unpopular government, at least from the perspective of its traditional allies in Europe and the United States. A close relationship with Russia is a hedge against an EU that labels settlement goods, or a U.S. that flirts with a final-status United Nations Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a fallback in a time when Israel’s allies seem less and less reliable, and when its government will make diplomacy with those allies even more troublesome than it would usually be.
Russia gets a handsome payout as well. No other country enjoys such warm relations with Assad, Iran, and Israel. Closer ties with Jerusalem raise the perception of Moscow as a global and regional linchpin at a time when the democratic world is attempting to keep Putin economically and diplomatically isolated over Russia’s policies in Ukraine. The fact that nearly a million Israelis are of Russian descent only raises the potential for closer ties between two countries that often find themselves on the wrong side of the international consensus.
Closer Russian-Israeli ties likely won’t sit well with many of Israel’s liberal supporters in the U.S. and Europe. But they highlight a reality that’s often lost in discussions of Israeli diplomacy: Israel is a foreign country, in a region gripped with violence and uncertainty. There are forms of friendship and support that Russia is capable of giving Israel that the U.S. or the EU is either unwilling or incapable of providing at the moment. Nations are faced with unsavory choices in times of crisis, and Israel isn’t an exception.
Still, there’s a double-edged character to a closer Russian-Israeli relationship. Putin’s tank gift isn’t just a sign of Russian-Israeli détente, but a reminder of how bad things could get if Jerusalem crosses Moscow: The only reason an Israeli tank made it to Russia in the first place is that the two countries used to be seemingly implacable enemies, a reality that came at a steep cost to the Jewish state. As the tank shows, there are always more unsavory possibilities looming at the edge of Middle Eastern politics.