In October 1991, the Soviet Union and Israel agreed to restore diplomatic relations that were severed during the 1967 Six Day War. Two months later the Soviet Union collapsed. As of today, 161 of the 192 U.N. members recognize Israel, including all 15 former republics of the Soviet Union.
The core of this growing alliance is the more than one million Israeli citizens who were born in the former Soviet Union. Between 1970 and 1988, only 291,000 Jews, and their non-Jewish relatives, were allowed to leave the Soviet Union (165,000 went to Israel, and 126,000 went to the United States).
In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev ended restrictions on Jewish emigration, in part for better relations with the United States. From 1989 to 2006, 1.6 million Soviet Jews, and their family members, left the former Soviet Union (979,000 went to Israel, 325,000 to the U.S. and 219,000 to Germany).
Earlier this year, President Putin said, “Russia and Israel have developed a special relationship primarily because 1.5 million Israeli citizens come from the former Soviet Union, they speak the Russian language, are the bearers of Russian culture, Russian mentality. They maintain relations with their relatives and friends in Russia, and this make the interstate relations very special.”
During the 2012 Russian presidential elections, hundreds of thousands of Israelis voted. Mikhail Prokhorov received 46.9 percent of the vote, Putin only 15.1 percent.
The bilateral trade between Israel and Russia was almost $3 billion in 2014. Israel’s exports to Russia in 2014 ($1.14 billion) pale in comparison to the United States’ ($11.7 billion).
Israel’s imports from Russia ($1.67 billion) are also small compared to its imports from the U.S. ($7.22 billion) and China ($5.91 billion), but there is enormous potential for this relationship. In 2014, Russia (411,400) was second only to the United States (602,600) in its number of tourists to Israel. The majority of Israel’s oil imports come directly from Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan and indirectly from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Russia’s role in the Middle East provides a mixture of tension and relief for Israel. In terms of relief, part of Israel’s emergence as the high-tech Start-Up Nation can be attributed to its Russian-speaking émigrés. In 1989, there were only 30,000 engineers and 15,000 doctors in Israel. The Soviet emigrants to Israel in 1989 and 1990 alone included 57,000 engineers and 12,000 doctors.
Meanwhile, the decline in Russo-Turkish relations, after Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015, forced Turkey to restore relations with Israel, a reconciliation agreement reached in full June 2016.
As for tension, Russia’s relationship with Iran is problematic. In 2007, Russia initially agreed to sell Iran the S-300, an advanced anti-aircraft system. The deal was suspended under President Medvedev in 2010.
After Putin returned to the presidency and tensions with the United States increased, Putin agreed to resume the sale in 2015. The S-300 would be a difficult system to overcome for Israel’s fourth-generation jet fighters (F-16 and F-15).
Israel disagreed with Russia on Iran’s nuclear program and the Iran Deal. Neither side has allowed this disagreement to harm other areas of its relationship.
There is also tension over Syria. In 2005, Russia forgave 73 percent of the $13.4 billion Soviet-era debt Syria owed to Russia. In return, Syria has bought billions of dollars of Russian weaponry.
Since 1971, Russia has had a naval base in Tartus, and it established an airbase in Khmeimim in 2015. With advanced aircraft and the S-400 anti-aircraft system in Syria, Israel’s ability to strike Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria has been made more difficult.
Although Russia has not designated Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations, Islamic terrorism partly explains Putin’s slow shift toward Israel over the years. It was evident, after his first meeting in September 2001 with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who was fluent in Russian).
While Sharon and other Israeli Prime Ministers were unable to convince Putin to abandon his relationships with Syria and Iran, neither was Putin willing to stop improving relations with Israel. He also refused to defer to the historically anti-Israel Russian Foreign Ministry regarding Israel.
Putin has visited Israel twice since coming to power. During his first trip, in 2005, Putin was reunited with Mina Yuditskaya Berliner, who was his German-language teacher in high school. During the visit, he bought her an apartment in Tel Aviv.
Putin returned to Israel in 2012. He met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and also visited the new Victory Monument in Netanya, which honors World War II veterans of the Soviet Union. Israel’s large Russian-speaking population includes thousands of Red Army veterans. These days, Israel hosts the largest May 9th celebrations outside of the former Soviet Union in tribute to the instrumental role of these Soviet veterans in the victory over Nazi Germany.
If someone were to read the Russian press not only in Russia but also in Israel, he would notice that Islamic terrorism is a big concern in both countries. At a recent press conference, Putin told Netanyahu that he wanted to learn from Israel’s experience with counterterrorism.
Let me emphasize, this shift in relations has been slow going. Russia still has a large Muslim minority, trade relationships with Arab and Muslim countries, not to mention anti-Semites among its communists and ultranationalists, all reasons for this slow pace.
The good news is that Russia and Israel will be driven closer out of economic necessity. Russia needs to transition its economy away from oil dependence. The fall in oil prices and the ruble, since 2014, is further proof that Russia needs to modernize its economy faster.
Silicon Valley proved that the creation of a successful high-tech industry requires a combination of at least three components:
The presence of all three elements is crucial for success. History is full of failed attempts to build a high-tech cluster while omitting one of the three elements. Skolkovo has plenty of talented Russians as well as billions of dollars in grants; however, this is no substitute for an entrepreneurial mentality and the rule of law in Russia.
Silicon Valley and Silicon Wadi in Israel succeeded, in part because of many talented Russians who sought to turn their idea into a successful company. The Russian diaspora in the United States and Israel can help modernize the Russian economy.
Israel also needs Russia, as well. Israel’s Start-Up Nation has been fueled by one million Russian-speaking Israelis. For this economic miracle to continue, the Israelis will need more engineers from the former Soviet Union. The Russian-speaking Israelis will have plenty of talent to choose from in the former Soviet Union. According the World Economic Forum, in 2015, Russia graduated 454,000 engineers and Ukraine graduated 130,000 engineers.
There is a Russian proverb, Аппетит приходит во время еды (Appetite comes with eating). With more success stories and growing trade relations, it could generate enough money to create the momentum necessary for these two countries to become great friends.