Key ministers tangle over Israel’s relations with Russia

Special to

JERUSALEM — Israel’s government has been divided over policy toward

Officials said the government dispute pits the Defense Ministry against
the Foreign Ministry. They said the Defense Ministry has insisted on a
strict policy of reciprocity while the Foreign Ministry was urging quiet
diplomacy to resolve tension with the Kremlin.

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak, right, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. AP/Sebastian Scheiner

“We have a very pro-American defense minister and a former Soviet immigrant as a foreign minister,” an official said. “Naturally, their perspectives are very different.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has supported Israel’s attempts to improve relations with Moscow. But Barak is said to have insisted that the Kremlin demonstrate its commitment to regional stability by ending arms sales to Iran and Russia.

“In fact, the opposite is taking place,” the official said. “Russia has
stepped up arms exports to Syria as well as nuclear assistance to Iran.”

In contrast, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been promoting Russia as a strategic ally of Israel. Lieberman, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, has argued that Moscow seeks to expand military and other cooperation with Israel but has been stymied by
the United States.

The two ministers engaged in a major dispute in wake of the Russian
expulsion of Israeli military attache Col. Vadim Leiderman in May 2011. In
what was termed an unprecedented move, Russia detained Leiderman for
questioning on suspicion of trying to collect information on Moscow’s arms
exports to the Middle East.

The Defense Ministry and the Israeli military urged Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu to approve the expulsion of the Russian defense attache
in Tel Aviv. But Lieberman argued against this, and at one point suggested that
Leiderman had ignored previous warnings from Moscow to stop unauthorized
meetings with Russian commanders and defense officials.

“Lieberman argued that the [Israeli] attache was warned at least three
times, and that nothing else could be expected from a superpower,” the
official said.

In the end, Netanyahu approved the expulsion of the unidentified Russian
attache. Officials said the attache was quietly ordered to leave in
September and Moscow and Jerusalem discussed guidelines to prevent
another spat.

“Both sides have been very cautious over the past few months,” the
official said.

Barak was said to have been angered by Russian arms sales to Syria
in late 2011. Officials cited the Russian export of the P-800 Yakhont cruise
missile as well as the Iskander-E long-range rocket, described as strategic

“If Russia had not gone through with these sales, then maybe Barak’s
position would have been more flexible,” the official said.

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