The Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is the friendly calf of the Russian proverb who sucks two cows. After his rather successful meeting with President Trump, he went to the enemy No.1 of the United States, and to his good friend, President Putin, in chilly Moscow, where he always gets a warm reception.
This time he came just before Purim, the jolly Jewish feast, when the Jews celebrate their legendary rise to prominence in Persia, some 2500 years ago. This feast (coming this Sunday March 12) was very much on the mind of two men. To keep up with tradition, Netanyahu was supposed to bring his host some Purim sweets, homentashen in Yiddisch, or “Haman ears”, triangular pastries filled with jam.
One of the nicest street scenes you can observe in the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim, is played on the next day, when perfectly dressed in 18th century garb dainty maidens carry neat willow baskets with sweets, shalahmones to their friends and relatives, like so many Little Red Riding Hoods. Purim is the Jewish carnival, Mardi Gras, and it almost coincides with the beginning of Christian Lent. Carnival is the time for doing things topsy-turvy: Jews get drunk and boisterous; in the old days they were likely to manhandle a Christian, preferably a priest and generally indulged in wayward frolics.
Putin, friendly as ever, wished his guest joyous Purim, and Bibi, as on the cue, immediately revealed the reason for his visit. Persians wanted to kill Jews on that day, but God prevented that, he said. Nowadays Iranians, who are the Persians, want to kill the Jews, but the Jewish state is strong etc. Bibi came to ask Putin to drop Iran; to remove Iranian fighters from Syria; block Iranian transit to Lebanon; or even to join an anti-Iranian coalition, and this reference to Purim had been an argument in defence of his audacious request.
Putin has been framed to play the part of Artaxerxes, the silly Persian king, who had been convinced by the arch-seductress Esther to arrange for mass killings of the enemies of the Jews and for giving the Jews the preferential treatment they enjoy to this very day. Bibi played the part of Esther in this short Purim-Spiel (Purim Play), traditional comic performance the Jews usually enacted on Purim. He tried to entice Putin with prospect of joining President Trump, the Saudi King and himself against the evil Persians.
Netanyahu was worried that the Syrian war is almost over (he’d love it to last forever, until the last Syrian), and the Iranians who contributed so much to Damascus victory will probably stay and keep their Hezbollah friends in Lebanon resupplied. And it means Israel won’t be able to bomb Lebanese and Syrians as freely as she had been accustomed to. Russians never used their S-400 missiles against Israeli jets when they intruded into Syria, but Iranians perhaps won’t be that reluctant to respond. Just a few days ago the Iranians demonstrated their Russian-supplied S-300 system is fully operational.
Netanyahu could try and tempt Putin with his ability to mobilise Israel Lobby on his side, and to end anti-Russian hysterics in Washington. The Jews have a lot of power in the US; surely the Jewish state’s Prime Minister can swing them the way he likes, if Putin agrees to his demands. And Trump had made some very anti-Iranian statements, to make the suggestion plausible.
Many people were anxious to see how Putin will respond to his Jewish seducer. Putin laughed him off. Even if you never watch videos, I strongly suggest to see with your own eyes these few seconds of mirthful laugh, of totally relaxed Russian President who listened to the Israeli Prime Minister as the indulgent father to an insistent son who just had tried an umpteenth time to trick him to buy a dangerous toy. No way, son, – thought Putin, and he said: “that was 2500 years ago. Now we live in a different world”.
I was not particularly anxious, as a few days ago this very dialogue had been dress-rehearsed, by Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Michael Bogdanov and the journalists of Al Hayat, the prominent Saudi-owned Arab newspaper of record published in London. Bogdanov is an excellent diplomat, smart, good-looking, spiritual, intellectual and knowledgeable. He served as the Russian Ambassador in Tel Aviv and Cairo, and he knows everybody who is somebody in the Middle East by his first name. Now he is also the special representative of the President in the Middle East. He is a man who knows Russian foreign policy in the Middle East as well as anybody. His responses could not be far-removed from Putin’s views.
He was grilled by Raed Jabr, the Moscow correspondent of Al Hayat, a dark and svelte Palestinian who represents mainstream Arab view prevalent from Riyadh to Beirut. Do you remember the favourite line of U.S. presidents and legislators that “there is no light between the U.S. and Israel”? Judging by Jabr’s persistent questions, there is no light between Israel and Saudi Arabia, too.
Time after time, Al Hayat man asked when and whether Iranians will withdraw from Syria. Mr Bogdanov replied: In Syria there are tens of thousands of foreign volunteers, thousands of Tunisians, Moroccans and Afghanis, while the Iranians, like the Russians, are in Syria by request of the legitimate government, and only the legitimate government can issue them walking orders. “The official leadership may demand all foreign forces to withdraw after reaching a solution”.
His words were imprecisely but fluently rendered by the WaPo “The lawful authorities who will be lawfully chosen in Syria would be the ones with the right to demand the withdrawal of all foreign powers from the country,” Bogdanov said. Actually Bogdanov spoke only of legitimate government after the settlement, not necessarily of a government chosen in this or other way.
Bogdanov rejected the talk about the export of the Iranian revolution, and the alleged Iranian desire to expand their influence in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. He called for US and Iranian rapprochement with Saudi participation. In Syria he called for a secular system, not a Shiite and not a Sunni Muslim and not a Christian, comes by way of free, fair and transparent elections at home and abroad including the participation of refugees in neighbouring and non-neighbouring countries, under the auspices of the United Nations.
Bogdanov complained that the US wants to keep Iran out of negotiations on Syria. “Americans are working without respect for international laws. We must respect the sovereignty of Syria, a member state of the United Nations.” He is clearly pessimistic about dealing with Syrian rebels: “They say, the revolution does not end until after the overthrow of the regime, when Bashar al-Assad and his clique will be brought to an international court. With this goal, the war can go on forever.”
He rejected the idea of Iran exporting its Islamic revolution. “Iranians say the Islamic Revolution was an internal affair to meet the interests of the Iranian people.” He reminded of Iranian military presence in Oman in 1970s at the request of the legitimate government. When the troubles were over, the Iranians had left Oman without an argument.
He called for the Russian-brokered talks between Iran and Saudis, in Moscow or elsewhere. Bogdanov also rejected the Saudi view of Yemen war (Saudis think they are entitled to deal with Yemen, but Iran should stay away). He rejected Turkish attitude to Kurds in Syria (“Why Turkey agreed on Iraqi Kurdistan, but does not agree to the Kurdistan in Syria? I think that this is not their business. This is an Iraqi affair and the Syrian affair. Syrian people and not the Russian or Turkish state should decide”.)
He summed up Russian policy: “Russia wants to abide by international legitimacy. We are committed to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of any country, including non-interference in our internal affairs. We respect the democratic process and not the colour revolutions. For coming to terms by the parties, the principle of no victor or vanquished is the best”.
This interview of Mikhail Bogdanov fully answers the question whether Russia will possibly act against Iran in any way. No chance. In politics, many things are possible. Politics is not a boy scout game. I am aware of realpolitik. But there is absolutely no real reasons for Russia to give up on Iran in exchange for some obscure Purim promises of Mr Netanyahu.
The US and Israel became well-known by their perfidious acts. From Philippines to Egypt and to Azerbaijan, the countries that once were pro-American, had suffered betrayal and turned away from Washington. The US is not a reliable partner anymore. Perhaps if Mr Trump will overcome the Pink Revolution in his country and establish himself as a real ruler, he will restore American trustworthiness. But meanwhile the US is not trustworthy. As for Israeli double-dealing, it is enough to check how Israelis had kept their promises made in Oslo to the Palestinians. Iranians are less than straightforward, but they are allies and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Russians in Syria, where the endgame is close but is not over yet. So simple realpolitik tells Russians to stick with them and reject Bibi’s offers.
But Israelis are insistent. A few days ago, Israeli defence minister Mr Avigdor Lieberman called (in the interview for Die Welt) to create a “NATO-like” military alliance of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Gulf states against Iran and against Shias. So the Jewish state has had fully assimilated in its region as a part of pro-Western reactionary Sunni block. It is not an odd man out anymore.
There is way out. It is to promote a compromise between Saudis and Iran. The feud between two states is very old, much older than the Islamic revolution, but there were compromises before, notably in mid-1970s, and now they are ripe for a new compromise. Saudis had spent too much of money on destabilisation in Syria and on hopeless war in Yemen. Russians may push them to settle. And that would put Israeli ambitions for a new round of wars to rest.
But for that, the Pink Revolution in Washington should be defeated, and President Trump should proceed with demilitarisation of the US foreign policy. The alternative, a war with Iran, is too awful to contemplate.
And Bibi? He received a consolation prize: a very meaningful Purim gift from Putin. Not a head of Iranian fighter on a silver plate, neither sweets or Haman Ears in willow basket, but a 500-years-old book, The Jewish War of Josephus. This is a well-chosen book, likely to remind unruly Bibi that it is better to compromise than to try and reach for the sky. The Jews of Josephus could have it very good under benevolent Rome, but they overreached themselves and came to disaster.
Or, perhaps, Putin had in mind another sentence from Flavius saying: the Jews had a picture of the Persian capital on a gate of their temple so they would never forget that the Persians returned the temple to the Jews, and that they, the Persians, should be respected and feared by the Jews forever.
Israel Shamir can be reached at [email protected]
This article was first published at The Unz Review.