Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Passover tale: Russia and Israel?

As the Passover season approaches, we pause to recall the story of Judaism’s first redemption, the exodus from Egypt more than three thousand three hundred years ago. Today, with Israel looking at  a possible epic existential threat as the Palestinian Authority (PA) announces repeatedly that it will seek unilateral statehood-- with borders that they  might attempt to choose  unilaterally-- we can wonder: will Israel find a Passover-style redemption over the next several months, or will that redemption be delayed as the UN tells Israel that they must ethnically cleanse its own population from the West Bank because--as the PA has repeatedly demanded—their new state must be Jew-free?
Of course, neither of the above could happen. A new Palestine could be created with no immediate outward impact on the ground. But even if that is what happens in 2011, the existential threat to Israel does not evaporate. We still have the same question: if there is to be any kind of redemption for Israel, how will that redemption unfold? Do we pray for a miracle, or do we use what is in front of us to create that miracle?
I would suggest we do both—pray, show Hashem that we mean what we pray—and then go to work. Where?
One good place to start would be an alliance with Russia.
 Russia?  Yes, because the Russian Bear is not dead. In fact, Russia may not only be more alive than you think, she may also be Israel’s lifeline to survival.
This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, if you think of historical events as simply the actions of Hashem  arranging the ‘furniture’ on the world’s stage, in order to achieve what He wants, then a Russian-Israel alliance might make a lot of Passover sense.
As an acquaintance has already written, an Israel that has been abandoned by the United States will be drawn closer to Russia.  While this statement was written more than three years ago, long before major American Jewish leaders felt and then reported enormous hostility from President Obama during a March 2011 White House meeting, the thought that the United States may abandon Israel (in the UN) is stronger today than ever before; and as US behaviour leaves an ally wondering if she will be protected, it may be Russia that steps in to fill the void.
Why Russia?
The answer starts with demographics. Today, more than a million Israelis are from the former Soviet Union. Many of these citizens (as my acquaintance has written)  continue to maintain family and business ties with Russia. Israel itself maintains business relationships with Russia. Many Israelis of Russian/Soviet origin are in Israel’s government.  Natan Sharansky, Head of the Jewish Agency, comes from—and has ongoing contact with—Russia, as does Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman.  Stas Misezhnikov has been Tourism Minister. Yuli-Yoel Edelstein has been Information and Diaspora Minister.  Israel is no stranger to Russia: Russian-Israel ties are firm and deep.
But there is a more important reason to promote a Russian alliance with Israel: the United States.
Right now, the United States is the only superpower in the world. Its military firepower is unrivalled. Its economy is the world’s greatest wealth engine.  Its currency is supreme.
 But today, its reputation is sinking. Its currency is not as strong as it used to be. Its ability to persuade and influence on the international stage has weakened. And its image as a strong and trusted ally has slipped.
Only recently, the United States has walked away from long-time ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt,  and its relationship with another long-time ally, Israel,  has deteriorated to a point that US support for Israel in a UN showdown against the Palestinian Authority is not the sure bet it used to be.
To some, the United States is already acting like it might be more dangerous than trustworthy, capable of inflicting immense military damage (think of Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps Libya) while at the same time it appears capable also of extraordinary betrayal against an ally when times become tough (Egypt, Israel).
The world sees this behaviour, and takes note: already, Al Jezeera has reported that the Arab world no longer sees Obama as a competent or trustworthy broker.
For Russia, that Big Bear who yearns for a return to the Big Stage, competing with the US is simply too expensive a proposition. She cannot afford to go head-to-head with the American juggernaut. She does not have the money or the military/scientific industry to catch up and then compete.
She cannot afford to buy her way back to superpower status.
But now, with Arab governments facing upheaval, Muslim extremists threatening Middle East stability, US influence melting on several fronts and Israel’s security about to be tested as never before, Russia may now have an opportunity to connect these points and step back onto the Big Stage—at a bargain price.
With these historical events coming together at exactly the same moment, Russia may not have to spend tens of billions of dollars to compete with the United States for the title of world’s premier power.   
Instead—if she identifies Israel as an ally-- Russia might be able to take and then dominate stage-center with nothing more than her voice.
The United States could, by comparison, look like a failure.
Indeed, there are two scenarios in which Russia can play—and win:  in the UN Security Council, using a veto; or, in the larger UN General Assembly (GA), using UN Resolution 377.
Consider the facts: when the Palestine Authority decides to bring its statehood request to the United Nations—scheduled, it appears, for September 2011-- that request must first, under existing rules, come before the UN Security Council, where a veto would, traditionally, shelve the request.
Four years ago, everyone believed that the United States would cast any necessary veto in the Council for Israel. But today, or perhaps six months from now, that support from the United States may evaporate under pressure from a hostile US President and a new United States foreign policy strategy to develop closer relations with the Muslim world.
Israel, in this scenario, loses its most powerful ally at the worst possible moment—when the world  has turned unrelentingly hostile to its existence. In an instant, without US assistance, Israel’s very existence could become a question.
Who would come to Israel’s aid?
 Who, indeed, would stand up against the Muslim world’s wrath after a veto, to support the Jewish state?
Russia, Israel’s newest ally.
For three reasons.
 First, Russia is not yet finished with militant Muslim rebels in its midst. Russia knows better than does the US about rebellious and aggressive Muslim extremists. If it is Russia who vetoes the UN effort for a Palestinian state, and Muslims act out in Russia to punish Russia for its veto, Premier Putin would use that activity as the perfect trigger to crush the rebels in the most harsh fashion. Unlike Israel, he would not tolerate three-or four thousand rockets landing near cities. Unlike the UK, he would not consider “talking” to the extremists.  Unlike the United States, he would not accuse Israel of causing him trouble. Instead, he would attack without hesitation and he would wipe out whole areas quickly and brutally. He would attack his rebel problem, and the world would understand his message.
The message from this would be clear: Russia alone stands up to the Muslim extremist; Russia alone has the courage, the military strength and the will to fight.
The United States does not.
It does not matter that the US does not today have the same home-grown problem; what matters is that Russia does have that problem—and it acts decisively to protect its national integrity.
Second, if Russia steps up to assist Israel at the UN, it will send a second clear message to everyone  at the UN:  the United States cannot act when the going gets rough. The United States will not stand by its allies. The US cannot be trusted.
But Russia can.
Russia will assist her allies. The United States will not.
Third, if Russia steps up for Israel, she would be doing so in an economic environment which is already dangerous for America . Since the end of World War Two, some sixty-six years ago, America has been the world’s dominant economic engine. The US dollar is both the currency of international trade and the international reserve currency. But China—and, more to our point, Russia—have both already been working to drop the dollar in some of their international trade transactions, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently spoken about replacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency--  because the dollar has become too volatile for global financial markets. Such actions and statements are significant because American economic wealth, power and influence are based on the dollar which in turn is connected to how the dollar is perceived in the international marketplace. If the dollar weakens, its exchange value could threaten to collapse (that is, become too volatile for international markets) and suddenly, what had once been strong, crucial and central to the world’s economies, could  now become not only weak ,but increasingly  irrelevant and, ultimately,  peripheral.
The British know all about this process because, in 1944, with the Breton Woods Conference, their currency was replaced by the dollar as the world’s pre-eminent currency, and its status as superpower melted.
Today, Russia knows that, if America is not already staring down this same economic gun-barrel, that gun-barrel is not far away.
So if Russia steps up at the UN and makes the United States look like a nation that will truly not stand by an ally, the influence of the United States on the Big Stage and its ability to persuade ally nations  can be eroded.  Worse for America,  Russia knows that this erosion of American influence can be leveraged when, over the next several months, US debt obligations to foreign countries could begin to totter like a modern Tower of (Monetary) Babel.  Russia is keenly aware that if America’s status as a respected ally could be called into question, just as its debt increases, its Treasury Bonds get downgraded and its dollar weakens, then America’s status as superpower could be vulnerable;  for  in the law of the jungle called international geopolitics, the weaker America appears and the less respected she becomes, the more power could accrue to those who—like Russia-- are ready, willing and able to replace the her.
Clearly, there is more to this story. But this is the core: America is weakening on several fronts, and everyone knows it.
The Leader is losing his strength. Are the conditions ripe for a new leader to emerge?
If the dollar continues to weaken then, with a single veto and with little capital outlay, Russia could claim to become the international strong man while the United States could become the international straw man—politically and economically weak.
With America’s reputation soiled by its refusal to protect long-time allies, and its economic influence decreased as its currency and Bond ratings  weaken, its status as a superpower could melt as Russia takes stage-center.
After all, what good is a superpower ally if that ally walks out on you in tough times?
What good is such an ally when, on top of everything else, its currency—the current standard of the world-- appears weak and increasingly sickly?
Can trading nations really stand by idly as the value of the dollar becomes increasingly volatile?
Perhaps it will be better to have a strong and steadfast ally that is willing to fight (and who already deals without dollars), than to ally oneself with someone you can no longer trust (and whose currency could plummet in value).
 Of course, this scenario assumes that a single veto in the UN Security Council will end the Palestinian attempt to act unilaterally for statehood. But what happens if, after a veto, the PA goes to the UN General Assembly (GA), to request a Resolution 377 decision?
That’s the second scenario for Russia to prove its mettle, and it offers far greater rewards for her.
As the Jerusalem Post has already pointed out, conventional wisdom has it that, if the Security Council cannot exercise its “primary responsibilities” to maintain international peace, then the GA can step in to issue “its own appropriate recommendations”, presumably including the creation of a new sovereign state.  A veto in the Security Council, most believe, creates an automatic  impasse,  and the use of  Resolution 377 in the larger General Assembly can then be used to outflank that impasse; and even though the GA’s authority under this resolution is not binding, many believe that it can be used against Israel.
If a veto is used to stop Palestinian statehood, the thinking goes, then both a UN commitment to future statehood for Palestine, and real sanctions against Israel (to motivate Israel to help create that new state), might indeed be gained through Resolution 377.
Therefore, a Russian veto might not work. Instead, if the PA is to be kept from its unilateral plan for statehood, someone would have to convince a majority of the Security Council members to abstain or be absent during the crucial vote, which, according to current thinking, is the only way to forestall the use of Resolution 377; for when a motion does not have enough votes to pass in the Security Council, there would be no ‘impasse’  for the GA to ‘correct’.  Not having the votes, the motion for a new state would simply fail and 377 could not be invoked.
Would Russia be that someone, the one state on the Council to stand up for Israel and jawbone for Council members to abstain or be absent?
Or, if efforts on Israel’s behalf in the Security Council fail, would Russia then argue to GA Member states not to vote for a Resolution 377?
Such action by Russia will not be expected.  Nevertheless, even if defending Israel against passage of a Resolution 377 vote could be a risk for Russia, the effort would be worth that risk.
Why? Because Russian influence would not take a hit with failure.  She would not lose even if she loses. Remember, Russia understands the status she can gain if she is seen to be an international power broker; and remember also that she sees herself as still rebuilding her shattered reputation (from the collapse of the Soviet Union);  so standing up for Israel, especially in this second scenario, can benefit Russia, who really has nothing to lose by losing.
For example, if Russia wants the world to see her as a reborn powerhouse which will back an ally when times are tough and outcomes are not guaranteed, even failure sends the desired message; for if Russia fails to convince a majority in the GA to stand with Israel, the attempt still tells all that only Russia has the courage to stand up for an ally, and the United States, in this event, clearly does not have that courage.
What counts here is perception: Russia stepped up; the United States did not.
Russia wins. US loses.
Then again, if Russia sees that it cannot stop a 377 vote, it could still win by sending out word that she will not fight the vote—provided that sanctions and other negative actions against Israel are reduced or eliminated, while Israel’s needs are taken into account.  This action serves Russia in three ways. First, it tells the world that it is Russia, not America, who  not only stands tall for an ally in tough times, but who will also negotiate aggressively on behalf of that ally; second, it tells the world that Russia understands that the UN must—first and foremost-- protect itself by protecting its existing Member states, for (by pushing Israel back to the 1949 borders and then sanctioning or otherwise attacking Israel) the UN  is absolutely setting the precedence for threatening the independence and sovereignty of all small states, thereby creating a monster that destroys its own before, inevitably, it destroys  itself, something the UN does not now appear to realize and which only Russia can say it recognizes;  and third, it tells the Arabs that it will be the Russians who call the shots in midwifing a new state, not the Americans.
And why would Arab states allow Russia to lead in this instance?  Because of the status of the dollar.
Remember the dollar?
 Arab oil-producing nations have a problem—they do not have diversified economies. They are all one-donkey economies: oil (pardon the mixed metaphor).  Arab League countries have been watching the dollar fall for years, and they have been talking to Russia (and others) about dropping the dollar as the main currency for the trade of oil. These discussions have been ongoing. Reports have been circulating for almost two years, if not longer, that the target date for this change is 2018. Clearly, the United States does not favour such a plan. It will work hard to do what it can to forestall it; but if the dollar continues to weaken, then Arab oil states cannot afford to be so patiently tied to a falling currency. They would lose too much money.  Nevertheless, they cannot act alone. But  if Russia is seen as playing a key role to protect the value of oil—by championing  plans to move away from the dollar—the Arab League could gladly give Russia a say in the birth of a new Palestinian state because, to put it gently, oil is more important to the Arab League than either Abbas or Hamas.
Don’t forget: it has already been reported that in 2009 both Russia and China had already suggested that a ‘super-sovereign reserve currency’ could challenge the dollar. Everyone knows that all of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China)  are more than  interested in this subject.
The ‘Israel’ issue simply serves as a catalyst for Russia to prove its Superstar status by taking a simultaneous leadership role in two of the moment’s most important international issues: the Arab-Israel conflict and the international currency debate-- and every action she takes in these two areas can highlight America’s weakness.
Furthermore, and adding to Russia’s urgency to be the key player in this drama, Russia is not the strongest or most influential partner in the BRIC coalition. But by taking on both the Arab-Israel and currency issues, she can change everything: if through Russian influence the BRIC coalition could create a new international currency that favours their combined economies (something they are indeed interested in),  then BRIC might become strong enough to replace the US as the world’s premier economic entity (something others have speculated about);  so any leadership role Russia can play to adjust the international financial stage to BRIC’s favour enhances Russia’s status as a game-changer for the BRIC coalition—a Russian-built success for BRIC that cannot be overstated;  and the more countries outside of BRIC that are aided by Russia’s actions, the greater will be  Russia’s image as the one country that can be a true game-changer on the international stage.
By helping Israel as it also buttresses Arab oil interests and enhances BRIC’s economic status, Russia builds friends and polishes its reputation which, in the end, strengthens her influence and status both on the world stage and within her BRIC coalition.

But wait.  If this story is only about power, BRIC and the dollar, why is Russia helping Israel?

Russia needs Israel: within the BRIC constellation, only Russia suffers from a dropping birth rate and a brain-drain (as professionals emigrate).  As the world becomes increasingly high-tech, and as other BRIC countries grow their science capabilities through an increasing number of eighteen-year olds, Russia knows it will stagnate; she desparately needs access to Israel's scientific and intellectual energy to keep up with her BRIC partners. Without Israel's scientific capital, Russia is at risk of falling behind her BRIC peers: Israel--that tiny country with a gargantuan scientific creativity--is Russia's ideal 'difference-maker'.

This Russian story is certainly not simple. But the data points exist; we just need to understand them in order to ‘connect the dots’.
If it is an oversimplification to say that Russia cannot lose by allying with Israel, is it nonetheless true that she stands to gain much by just such an alliance.
While we in Israel tend to see the world only through the lens of our own interests, the truth is, our survival could depend more on our servicing the interests of someone else—Russia.
What happens if we explain to Russia that what is unfolding in the UN is not simply or exclusively about the Arab-Israel conflict, but about Russia and the United States, and the competition to be crowned the premier nation of the world?
Can Israel benefit by recasting the PA’s UN drama into a US/Russia play? 
I would suggest that it can benefit enormously from such a recasting, because the next superpower will be crowned only from a crucible of conflict (that’s how these things work)—and right now, the biggest conflict going, the most visible conflict (visibility counts), the one conflict that can pit the US and the Bear against each other to Russia’s advantage, is the Arab-Israel conflict.
 To lever itself onto Stage-center—and lever America off that Stage—Russia can use an alliance with  Israel—including any fallout from a UN Resolution 377 effort by Arabs-- to leap into the spotlight at America’s expense.  Such a triumph would be delicious to the Russians; it would be their ultimate poetic justice against their former arch-rival: he who laughs last, laughs best.
I think Mr Putin understands all of this. I also believe that he is a risk-taker. I think he has more to gain in this attempt than he risks losing. Certainly, if our current understanding of Resolution 377 is correct, a Russian effort to help Israel could bring him inordinate rewards. In fact, even if our understanding of UN 377 is not correct—and it turns out to be no threat to Israel--  Mr Putin will still understand that  standing up for Israel could be for him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain so much so quickly; and if he doesn’t understand all of this, we should certainly instruct him.
Mr Putin is not a man who needs a lot of instruction.
 The world is a harsh and often cruel place, but it loves a risk-taker almost as much as it loves a winner; and it always scorns a coward. If Mr Putin knows anything, it is how to play the risks to win big.
How harsh is our world? Russia and Iran are allies. Iran is Israel’s enemy. But does this mean that Russia, as the friend of our enemy, is therefore our enemy, too? Does Russia’s alliance with Iran disqualify her as an ally of Israel? No.  We should not be fooled by an alliance between Iran and Russia as we consider our own alliance, because there is as much—or more-- suspicion as friendship between these two players. Uneasy lies their fellowship.  Israel, on the other hand, is a far more stable and trustworthy partner for Russia; and certainly if, by befriending Israel, Russia can become both the world’s premier ally and BRIC’s most diplomatically successful partner, then Israel would be a valuable friend to the Bear of the North.
The alliance of Russia and Iran can easily be described as two long-term enemies, deeply suspiciously of each other, jockeying for position before one breaks out to attack the other, with only one thing to recommend it—you keep your friends close, but you keep your enemies closer.  
An alliance with Israel, however, would be completely different—and the world  knows it.
America’s weakening dollar, its weakening influence, the Russian and BRIC interest in a new international currency, Arab oil interests and Israel’s security—only Hashem could bring all of these currents together for Israel to foster and crystallize.
These could be the ingredients for a Passover miracle—if we have the vision to see it.
Indeed, for Russia, a strategic alliance with Israel will be like receiving a gift that keeps on giving, for Israel is (much more so than Iran) a resource rich in military intelligence and scientific innovation, both of which will be important for Russia if she is to maintain a foothold in the Middle East and boost her effort to become a BRIC leader.

A Russian-Israel alliance offers rich rewards to both parties.
Russia. It is not the Big Bear it used to be. But these days, military force isn’t everything.
Today, it takes something else to be a winner; and whatever that something else is, Putin has it. Obama doesn’t.
So while Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu tries to figure out what speech he will give to the US Congress (scheduled for May 2011), we have to remember that US President Obama and his advisors continue their work to create a new world order, using American foreign policy decisions to forge new realities. Perhaps, with Hashem’s help, the new world order Obama creates will not be what he intends.
Perhaps, that new world order will be more about Israel and Russia than it will be about the United States.
Before you say this is far-fetched, remember that four or five years ago, no one would have suggested that the UN would turn against Israel at exactly the moment that the US begins to think about abandoning her in the UN. If Israel is to survive, we can no longer rely on what is conventional or expected. Our survival will depend on the unexpected.
Our Passover tale of redemption and triumph for Israel will certainly depend on Hashem—but this modern Passover story might also involve Russia.
We might be wise to consider that possibility.

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