It speaks volumes that Russia, rather than Israel, has been going public with details of a “hotline” and joint air exercises they have launched to avoid an accidental clash in the skies over Syria.
Israel is unusually tight-lipped about the military coordination, a reticence that officials and experts say stems in part from reluctance to signal any significant strategic shift away from the United States, its key ally but one that has reduced Middle East engagements as Russia steps up its own.
“We don’t interfere with them and they don’t interfere with us,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a radio interview, tersely summing up Israel’s accommodation with Russia.
Another reason Israel is holding back is because it does not know the full extent of Russia’s plans for Syria or what effect they could have on Assad’s allies — Iran and Hizbullah.
A de-facto axis between Moscow and Israel’s two most powerful regional enemies could seem an unsettling scenario for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, but it might also be seen as providing a moderating influence.
“The new order in the Middle East is loose coalitions for specific purposes, so a Russian partnership with Iran and Hizbullah to save Assad is not necessarily bad for us,” a Netanyahu confidant told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not looking to mess with Israel, and it’s unlikely he would look kindly on Iran or Hizbullah messing with Israel now, either,” the confidant said.
The assurance has been echoed by Russia, which hosted Netanyahu for Syria “deconfliction” talks on Sept. 21.
Moscow has made no secret of seeing vindication for its Syria strategy in the Netanyahu government’s posture.
“Israel’s prudence from the outbreak of the conflict in Syria has become apparent in the fact that Israel did not consider the overthrow of President Assad as an indispensable condition to avoid foreign intervention and impediment for the beginning of a national reconciliation,” Alexander Shein, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, said.
He linked this to what he described as Israel’s “wisdom” in not taking sides when Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine last year following the removal of a Ukrainian president who was sympathetic to Moscow.
Israeli officials have spoken respectfully, but not lavishly, about their evolving relationship with Russia, and reiterated that the U.S. remains the key ally despite differences.