Interview with Victor Olveich Jan 2012
Victor Olvech: Senior Israeli officials have recently confirmed that Russia and Israel are in negotiations regarding the creation of a free trade zone between the Moscow-centered Customs Union and the Middle Eastern nation. This has been represented in a number of media outlets as a precursor to Israel joining the Customs Union. What agreements have actually been reached? How significant are these developments for the bilateral Russian-Israeli economic relations?
Michael Dorfman: During the last visit of Israeli PM Netanyahu to Moscow in November 2013 there was a declaration of intents to create tax free zones between the two countries, but not with the Custom Union. There was a statement issued, regarding the need to increase of the volume of Russian-Israeli trade by threefold. This looks quite modest when comparing the figures.
The trade with Russia is about 2% of the Israeli trade balance, and if this rises to 6%, it doesn’t greatly change the picture of Israel’s dependence on the European and American markets. However, all this was among the minor issues, the main goal of the visit was regarding Iran and this didn’t rouse any interest in the mainstream Israeli or international media.
Later in December, the Russia-born Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman posted on his Facebook page a message about Israeli intentions to join the Custom Union. Israel has had a long standing tradition of ministers making political statements, which often don’t match, and are even contrary to government policy.
Ministers in Israel’s coalition political system are politicians. They have its own political power, and such a breach of government discipline doesn’t usually have any serious consequences.
Mr. Lieberman and his party are known for such sensational statements, often made on the eve of elections, as for example the exchange of territory with the Arabs or the intention to bomb the Aswan dam. All of this has to do with Israeli political warfare, and not with any serious foreign policy.
VO: Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has openly spoken out in favor of changing the country’s foreign policy priorities and seeking new alliances and partnerships in the face of a deteriorating relationship with Washington
MD: It would be premature to talk about such drastic changes to Israeli priorities on the basis of statements made by Mr. Lieberman. To take seriously such statements, we need to have at least some official government resolution to join the Customs Union, and there is no such agenda and it isn’t expected. Despite his title, Mr. Lieberman is responsible, in fact, for only the foreign affairs in the less prioritized regions, as the post-Soviet countries and Africa.
Europe isn’t willing to deal with him because of his extremist and racist politics. For the same reason, relations with the Arabs and Turkey (the third largest Israeli trading partner after the US and UK) are handled by other government ministers. The unique relationship with the United States historically is a prerogative of Prime Minister’s Office.
VO: What lies behind the recent strains in ties between the White House and the Israeli establishment? What potential alternate alliance choices are actually available to the Israelis?
MD: There is a great difference between the very cold, even hostile, personal relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the long held special Israeli-American relationship. The “Iranian threat” became the main issue of Mr. Netanyahu’s foreign policy, domestic politics and international propaganda — notoriously known as “hasbara”. The “Iranian threat” helps Netanyahu divert attention from the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Also Iran’s nuclear capability may severely limit Israeli impunity in the Middle East and could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which Israel cannot afford economically and politically.
Israel and the United States have enjoyed a special relationship for decades, starting in the Cold War period and lasting into the 21st century. Israel, one of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East, has not only deeply engaged in military and intelligence cooperation and received vast military assistance from Washington, but has also been drawn into the social and cultural sphere of the United States. How much influence does Washington exercise in determining Israel’s foreign policy choices? Is it possible for Israel to extricate itself from the close alliance with the U.S. if its leadership chooses to pursue a different route?
Israel is thoroughly dependent on the US. Israel’s main deterrent isn’t its nuclear weapons as they love to hint. Any diplomatic, military or economic assault on Israel, even in self-defense, would cause a disproportionate American response. Such partnerships have been built up over decades, and are supported by a strong pro-American lobby in Israel. It is unlikely it can be easily altered by some change in the political mood.
However, the Cold War is long over, and U.S. involvement in the Middle East is weakening along with the economic decline, decreasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for many other reasons. After the Arab spring, it became clear that Kissinger’s doctrine, which had defined the Middle East for the last 30 years, had collapsed. The US and its allies have been sidelined and cannot significantly affect the tectonic socioeconomic processes that change the Middle East today.
Israel isn’t isolated from anything that happens in the region. Israel becomes a typical Middle Eastern country, a Judaized version of its neighboring Islamic and Arab republics. In the long term there is a great probability, that Israel and Russia would have more common interests and would find themselves on the same side in international conflicts. At the same time, in Israel, and in the West, there are very powerful lobbies and groups which benefit from the Israeli-Russian lack of cooperation and even hostility.
VO: The nature of the Israeli lobby’s influence in the United States has been a subject of much speculation. What is the role of the lobby in constructing Washington’s relationship with Israel today?
MD: The Lobby is like a night flower that blooms when no one sees it – was famously stated Steve Rosen, the director of AIPAC, the largest pro-Israeli lobbyist group. Since then, Rosen has been fired, went on trial for espionage, has been released after unprecedented pressure, and then sued his former employer, threatening to expose some terrible secrets. His words and his story greatly illustrate the work of the pro-Israel lobby. Debates about this lobby have never been in a calm academic tone, but have always been heated, and passionate.
Lobbyism in America is a legitimate thing, created to represent the interests of various groups and have helped politicians to make decisions. Jewish lobbyism emerged to protect against anti-Semitism and discrimination which had prevailed in the United States up until the 1970s. The Jewish lobby has been gaining strength for a century. when many of the Jewish problems in the US were resolved, this structure of the “professional Jews” had to find new areas for activity and fundraising. “The memory of the Holocaust”, “struggle against global Antisemitism” and most importantly, the “defense of Israel ” became the Jewish secular religion in America. Zionism tries to subordinate all Jewish activity in the US. The defense of Israel is made not through rational argument but through cultivation of guilt, fear, Islamophobia, Russophobia and other prejudices.
The pro-Israeli lobby largely determines the rhetoric in the U.S. relationship with Israel. Pro-Israeli lobbyist groups try to silence any criticism of Israeli policy in the administration, and the media. They succeed in creating an atmosphere of fear among politicians, bureaucrats, academics and the military.
VO: What methods are used by the Israeli lobby to successfully maneuver through the American two-party political system?
MD: Тhe work of the pro-Israeli lobby technically is no different from any other lobby. They are trying to convince the public that what’s good for Israel is good for America , just like other lobbyists are trying to convince us that what is good for Ford or Wall Street is good for America. The pro-Israeli lobby is supported by well-organized Jewish communities. An influential punditocracy which uses the biases of millions of evangelical Christians that Israel will bring the Second Coming. This lobby works individually with various U.S. lawmakers and even with administration officials.
If the data of Jewish political action committees (pacs) at the Democratic and Republican parties is correct, Jewish political donations account for up to 30-40% of all the money spent on the operation of the huge machinery of American politics. To achieve success, any lobby should be non-partisan. While cultivating fears for the purpose of collecting donations helps to ensure that the lobby is increasingly politicized and shifted to the right. This inevitably hurts the purpose of the lobbies, because if one political party is for, the other would invariably be against.
Another limitation is a narrow one issue expertise. The pro-Israeli lobby repeatedly failed to use its influence for pushing other special interests, such as to help Turkey in their denial of the Armenian genocide or to help Russia repeal the Jackson–Vanik amendment.
VO: The United States has the largest Jewish population in the world today. Yet, as a number of Jewish-American commentators, from Peter Beinart to Norman Finkelstein, have observed, the values embodied by the official Jewish-American establishment and those shared by the majority of American Jews are vastly at odds. How did this disparity develop?
MD: Using prejudice rather limits the pro-Israeli lobby. Their base is driven by fear and forces them to take a more extremist and irreconcilable position. The lobby is often in opposition to any ideas regarding peace and the end of the occupation of Palestine, even if the ideas come from the Israeli government.
An ugly reality of oppression of the Palestinian people, and the rising racism and religious-nationalist extremism in Israel, serves to keep away a growing number of Jews and non-Jews from the pro-Israeli activity.
VO: How will the changing demographics of the Jewish population in the United States influence the ability of the Israeli lobby to be affective? How do the members of the Jewish-American Generation Y view the changing relationship between Israel and the United States?
MD: A recent Pew poll showed that more Jews consider Jewish humor more important than “caring about Israel”. Despite a huge effort by the Jewish establishment in the pro-Israeli youth activity, there is a clear decrease in interest in Israeli affairs among the generation Y.
The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement and groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace have more influence, and adversely affects the collective psycho of American and Israeli Jews. There are some attempts to establish a more peaceful and balanced pro-Israeli lobbyist groups, such as JStreet. However, there is no quick fix, and the pro-Israeli lobby will continnnue in this mode for a long while, even expanding and reproducing this lobbyist activity in the European Union and post-Soviet countries.
VO: How has the lobby influenced America’s relations with other nations of the Middle East?
MD: In the past, the pro-Israeli lobby has been extremely effective in limiting American arms sales to Arab countries, and now in many respects they continue in this direction. One of the main objectives of Netanyahu’s last visit to Moscow was the Russian- Egyptian arms dealing. However, the pro-Israeli lobby isn’t omnipotent. There is no secret that the pro-Israeli lobby wanted the White House to keep Egyptian president Mubarak in power.
Today, however, the Middle East is in such turmoil and uncertainty, that all the old political concepts and associations are rapidly losing its value. Beginning in 2010, the pro-Israel pundits and their neo-conservative allies insisted on the need for an American military intervention in the civil war in Syria, on the side of anti-Assad forces. However, after the Russian- American agreement regarding the Syrian chemical weaponry, these voices were quieted down considerably. Israel, like the U.S., is afraid of both the Shiites, and the radical Sunnis. Their interest is that the various sides will destroy each other as much as possible. The removal of the chemical weapons, which could deliberately or accidentally hit Israeli territory, made the civil war in Syria safe for Israel. This is why the pro-Israeli lobby significantly reduced its aggressive tone.
However, the influential pro-Israel lobby failed to push the US into a military confrontation with Iran. Netanyahu government’s diplomacy and sometime an open blackmail succeeded in creating Iran’s international isolation and unprecedented sanctions,. Today the lobby is determined to derail the negotiations with Iran. Currently, supporters of Israel in the U.S. Congress are trying to impose a new set of sanctions against Iran that could disrupt a very fragile and unstable diplomatic process.
MD: The neoconservative wing of the Republican party, closely allied with the Israeli lobby, has been steadily losing ground in Washington since the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Is this a temporary setback or does the ideology still have the potential for a comeback?
I wouldn’t call neoconservatives a wing of the Republican Party or any party at all. This group is well represented amongst the pundits, in academia, in the media and in influential Washington think tanks. Hoever, neocons are not able to provide votes and by themselves have very little clout in real politics.
There’s no ideology of neoconservatism, but only promotions and an advertising package for the political spinmastery, and selling to the public interest groups of the Military Industrial Complex. Neoconservatives in fact are the lobby of the MIC, but unlike the real and grass-roots pro-Israel lobby, they are mostly virtual, what is called in America an astroturf.
Neocons have held influential positions in the Bush administration and have dragged America into costly and pointless wars in the Middle East. They got it all wrong. However, what is bad for America was good for the Base (as they call in DC the political incorrect MIC “the Military-Industrial Base”). So the failures didn’t have many consequences for most of the neocons . Such a lack of elites’ responsibility is typical for the modern America. Nobody was held responsible for huge failure of September 11, nor the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction”, nor for housing bubble or the 2008 financial meltdown.
The neocons are once again in the spotlight, they, again, are invited into discourse. They were the backbone of the political and military advisers for the presidential candidates, their “talking heads” appear in all the major talk shows, and their opinion pieces are popping up all over the media. And this will continue until their sponsors provide them with money.
MD: The relations between the Soviet Union and Israel had reached their low point in 1967, when Moscow cut off diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv in response to the Six Day War. Relations were fully restored under Soviet president Gorbachev and improved ties persisted into the new century. Yes, the Israeli leadership has consistently taken positions opposed to an expansion of Russian influence in the Middle East. How does the Israeli establishment view the current state of relations with Moscow? What are the main obstacles to closer ties between the two countries?
As I stated, Israel and the US, themselves, are today on the sidelines of Middle East history. So, I do not think that Israel or the United States can effectively prevent Russia of anything, while they themselves wind up as passive observers.
The Russian-Israeli relations were restored in 1989, however, the Soviet’s huge mistake in 1967 has continued to harm Russian interests. In 1967, there was in power in Israel, a generation of immigrants from the Russian Empire. Many of them knew the Russian language, and were able to build trust, or at least to create some mutual understanding between the parties.
In 1996-98, I worked on a documentary about Soviet espionage in Israel. For various reasons, the project had to be postponed. I realized that the two countries’ intelligence communities functioned very poorly. They didn’t understand each other and they failed to properly inform and guide their leaders in decision-making. Today the gap between the mindset of the political classes of the two countries is even deeper. And here is the main obstacle – a lack of trust. The two nations don’t trust each other, so they don’t understand each other’s motives. They believe in either the promises or threats and may mistakenly interpret any intentions.
There may be some exceptional circumstances that will bring the Israelis and Russians together. However, this convergence is extremely slow and it goes from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Recently, a prominent Russian Jewish activist, Baruch Gorin, stated in an interview that essentially there disappeared reasons for domestic anti-Semitism. I have written and continue to state that Russian society while calling themselves multinational, are essentially monocultural and monolingual. The Jews have long been considered in the mainstream as Russians. There is no irrational hostility toward Israel, just an evaluation of the Russian interests.
Also, Israel no longer stands up to enemies armed and supported by the Soviet Union. The cultivation of fears of an imaginary Russian anti-Semitism also will disappear along with the older generation. In the post-Zionist Israeli discourse there is no reason for Russophobia. There came into the political scene a young generation of Israelis, who are resistant to the old phobias and paranoid fears, although they have their own. Actually the majority American Jews are more Russophobic, prejudiced and war mongering, than Israeli ones.
There are growing economic ties and common interests between Russia and Israel, especially in the fight against terrorism, but also in hi-tech, agriculture and others areas. This process is extremely slow and depends on a number of international factors. In the meantime, the real indicator of Israeli-Russian rapprochement will not be in the FB postings of some Russian-speaking Israeli politician. Nor is it in more Russian involvement in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process (where Russia has a very low leverage). The real evidence of improvement in relations will be if Israel will allow Gazprom to participate in the exploration of the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. The end of the occupation of Palestine will be helpful for improving the Russian-Israeli relations.
VO: What potential does the Russian-speaking community in Israel offer for improving relations with Russia?
MD: MK Roman Bronfman and journalist Lily Galili published an interesting book called “The Million that changed the Middle East”, about the Russian-speaking Israelis. The book begins with a statement: We imagined ourselves as the 51st US state, but we found ourselves to be the 16th Soviet republic. However, if after 20 years, the Russian Israelis have contributed very little to the improvement of Russian-Israeli relations, I don’t think that they will be able do it in the future. Much more important is the next generation, their kids, who grew up in Israel. They will form the backbone of the Israeli administration, politics, military and society. It is they who will determine the relations between Russia and Israel. I don’t see among them much sentiment towards Russia, neither positive nor negative, and it is a promising thing. They need a healthy and unemotional approach. There are so many charged emotions in Israeli-Russian relationships. They have to discharge these emotions and then it is possible for work driven by mutual interests.