Israeli-Russian Relations since the Collapse of the Soviet Union

By Freedman, Robert O. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Israeli-Russian Relations since the Collapse of the Soviet Union


Freedman, Robert O., The Middle East Journal


OTHER than continental Europe, perhaps no area on the globe saw a greater transformation of Soviet foreign policy in the era of President Mikhail Gorbachev than the Middle East. When Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union in March 1985, the Middle East was clearly an area of superpower competition. Moscow backed the Arab rejectionists such as Algeria, Iraq, Libya, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Syria in their confrontation with Israel, and viewed Egypt, an ally of the United States, as an enemy. The Soviet Union had no diplomatic relations with Israel, had reduced Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union to less than 1,000 per year (as opposed to a high of 51,000 in 1979), and continued to champion the 1975 anti-Israeli "Zionism is Racism" resolution of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. In the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Soviet Union had alternately tilted first toward Iran and then toward Iraq, as it sought to keep maximum influence in both countries, while at the same time trying to prevent the United States from becoming the sole outside guarantor for the Arabs against Iran.(1)

At the time when Gorbachev was ousted from power with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, there had been a massive transformation in most Soviet policies toward the Middle East. This transformation was accelerated by the failure of the August 1991 abortive coup d'tat that enabled Gorbachev to eliminate many of his most hardline opponents.(2) The most significant area of change was in Moscow's relations with Israel. Not only did Gorbachev restore full diplomatic relations with Israel in October 1991 and join with the United States in co-sponsoring a UN resolution reversing the "Zionism is Racism" resolution, but he also allowed hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Arab rejectionists like Iraq and Syria were upset by this, as they saw the immigrants, many of whom had advanced degrees, as adding to the military and scientific power of Israel. Despite extensive Arab criticism, Gorbachev allowed the flow of emigrants to continue, primarily to win the favor of the United States, although he justified his action on human rights grounds.(3) Moscow also joined the United States in co-sponsoring the October 1992 Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference. It was one more sign of the growing superpower cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, although the United States clearly played the dominant role at the conference. Gorbachev also cultivated Egypt, making it the centerpiece of Soviet policy in the Arab world. As Soviet-Egyptian relations went from enmity to close cooperation, Soviet-Syrian relations deteriorated when Gorbachev refused to give Syria the weapons it needed for military parity with Israel.

This essay will examine the evolution of Russian-Israeli relations from the collapse of the Soviet Union in late December 1991 until the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of October 1994. While Israel sought to develop its relations with all the successor states of the Soviet Union,(4) its central priority was Russia. That state was by far the most important in terms of diplomatic, economic, and military power. Russia had inherited the UN Security Council seat (with veto power) previously held by the Soviet Union. It also had the largest population of Jews still remaining in the former Soviet Union (FSU), which Israel hoped would ultimately choose to emigrate to Israel.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had four major concerns about the collapse of the Soviet Union. First, the fear that, given the desperate economic conditions of virtually all the successor states, nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Ukraine might be sold to Israel's Middle East enemies like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Nuclear scientists from the FSU might also be persuaded to serve in these countries for far higher salaries than they were capable of earning in their home countries. …

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