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Joseph Epstein: Hello and welcome to today’s Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET)Webinar. My name is Joseph Epstein and I am EMET’s director of Legislative Affairs. It is my pleasure to host Dr. Ze’ev Khanin, an Israeli expert on the former Soviet Union. Dr. Khanin currently heads the post-Soviet Conflicts research program at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University He is also the academic chairman of the Institute for Euro-Asian Jewish Studies. He previously worked as a professor at Ariel and Tel Aviv Universities and was the Chief Scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Integration. He has published nine books and countless articles in his field. During our webinar, Dr. Khanin will examine bilateral relations between Israel and Russia and between Israel and Ukraine. He will discuss how Israel fits into the conflict between the West and Russia and will focus on Russia’s expanding interest in the Middle East and the global south.

Before we start, I want to mention that our work is only possible with your support. If you find what we do informative and helpful, please consider sponsoring a future webinar or contributing to EMET. It is your help and support that allows us to continue with our important work on Capitol Hill. There we work to ensure a prosperous and peaceful Israel in the Middle East, to fight the influence of the Iranian regime, to increase US national security, and to improve the welfare of Jewish Americans. Today’s webinar will be recorded for future viewing and I encourage those of you who find the webinar informative to share the link once it is disseminated. If you have any questions for our speaker, please feel free to write them in the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. Without further ado, I would like to introduce Dr. Ze’ev Khanin.

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: Thank you, Joseph. Thanks to everybody who found the time to join this webinar. I am happy to share a few of my ideas concerning the Russian factor in the Middle East. I will focus on three issues. First, the nature of the current Middle East conflict and its transformation from an Arab-Israeli conflict to the new model. This new model has little, if anything, to do with the traditional understanding of the Middle Eastern problem. Second, I will say a few words about Russian interests in the Middle East and Israeli-Russian relations. At the end, I may also address bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Moscow and Jerusalem and Kyiv. I will take around 30 minutes to address the main issues I mentioned and then I will be pleased to answer your questions. I am also interested to your comments and recommendations

We may define the current war in the Middle East as part of a general global conflict comprising a Middle East front, an Eastern Europe front, and including other modern world conflicts. This general global conflict can be defined as the third World War. This is the new War of the 21st century and it is very different from what mankind experienced in the 20th century during World War I and World War II.

So, let’s start with the first point. The Middle East conflict has typically been considered synonymous with the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, over the past 20 to 25 years, the nature of the Middle East has changed and we are witnessing the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This change began during the second decade of this century with the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. As one of my colleagues at Tel Aviv University described it, the Arab Spring was quickly transformed to the Islamist Winter and to the autumn of the great powers here in the Middle East.

By the beginning of this decade, the Arab-Israeli conflict was close to ending. This was brought about by the signing of the Abraham Accords by Israel and pro-American Arab Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf or Arab Gulf, as they prefer to call it. Arab signatories of the Abraham Accords include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

We also anticipated we would soon be watching a ceremony on the lawn of the White House. The ceremony would include the Israeli prime minister, the Saudi Arabian King or Prince, and the American president and they would be shaking hands after the signing the agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, normalization with Saudi Arabia has not happened because of the new war in the Middle East. Assuming Saudi Arabia and Israel eventually sign a normalization agreement, the hundred-year long Arab Israeli conflict will be over. This may trigger other Arab, and non-Arab, Muslim countries to normalize relations with Israel. Such countries include Pakistan, Malaysia, and even Indonesia, the most populated Muslim nation in the world. The Israelis are not happy that normalization with the Saudis has been delayed and I do not think the Americans are either. There are others, however, who are very happy about it.

We can define the first big 21st-century war in the Middle East as the war between the global south and the global north. The global north is made up of western democracies while anti-western countries comprise the southern bloc. This is a new understanding of the essence of the Middle Eastern conflict. It is no longer an Arab-Israeli conflict. We have entered a period of confrontation between western democratic nations headed by the United States and non-Western or anti-Western countries who have raised the banner of a new colonialism. Membership in the northern versus southern block is not dependent on geography. As an example, Israel and Japan are members of the northern block while countries like Russia are in the southern block. The United States, European Union leaders and some others compete for control of the northern block while China, India and Russia compete to lead the southern block.

As I mentioned, Israel is part of the club of democratic, western nations. We still believe Riyadh and Jerusalem will normalize relations and this will end the Arab Israeli conflict in its classic form. It will also be the beginning of the military defense block or alliance of so-called Middle Eastern nations. I am not talking about the institutional understanding of this word. Rather, I am referring to intersections and interrelations between bilateral and multilateral defense agreements, which will be directed against the so-called Iranian block. The Iranian block includes Iran itself and its satellite countries like Syria and Iraq. It also includes quasi states like the Houthi state in Northern Yemen and Hamas’s Islamic state in the Gaza Strip. The block includes all Shia and other militias sponsored, supported, armed and financed by Iran.

There is a line of confrontation between these two big forces. Israel is on the western side of this confrontation but the line divides a certain part of Israeli society. I am referring to the Arab Israelis, or internal Palestinians, as some may define themselves. After the Oslo agreements, there was a substantial identity transformation amongst the Israeli Arabs. Before the 1990s, the majority of Israeli-Arabs defined themselves as such, or simply as Israelis. Then we saw a growing number identifying as Palestinians and now we are seeing the trend reverse. The number of Israeli-Arabs identifying as Palestinians is decreasing and being replaced with two other models of identity. One is a return to the Arab-Israeli identity. The second is a pivot to an Islamist identity. So, there is a line between the global south and the global north within a specific part of Israeli society. I would say this war is among the first between the global south and the global north here in the Middle East.

As discussed, Israel is in the block of liberal, western countries. As such, if Israel is winning, then anti-western, totalitarian, authoritarian, and radical Islamists are losing. In fact, we saw this illustrated a few days ago. On April 14th, Iran sent hundreds of missiles and drones to attack Israel. 99% of them were destroyed before they even entered Israeli airspace. This was accomplished by the combined actions of the Israeli defense and air forces and the air defenses of the United States, Britain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. This gave us a glimpse of how this block may coordinate in the future and what might happen after the end of this war. As I said, normalization with the Saudis was postponed but not canceled. It was not removed from the table. Now, let us say a few words about Russia.

Russia’s interests in the Middle East and the global south are pretty clear.  They believe normalization agreements between the United States, Israel, and moderate Saudi block Arab countries will damage their interests. I am not sure Russia was involved in planning and organizing the October 7th attack on Israel. However, I would say the Kremlin and Moscow are enjoying the results. As we discussed, the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been postponed. As far as Russia is concerned, this places a significant question mark on the establishment of the anti-Iranian, anti-Russian alliance.

After October 7th, we observed what President Vladimir Putin, the Russian foreign minister, Russian politicians and public figures were saying. Through exclamations, publications, discussions and briefings, they asserted the violence on and after October 7th, was a result of a failed American policy in the Middle East. They criticized the American-led Middle East peace process and maintained Russia would have been much more effective in this regard. They spread this propaganda mostly within the so-called Russian World. That includes the Russian speaking diasporas over the world, regardless of ethnic region. It even includes ethnic Jews here in Israel. According to the official Kremlin doctrine, Israel’s Russian speaking community is part of the Russian world. This means they consider the more than one million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union to be part of the Russian world.

Now is probably a good time to discuss the third topic, the bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine on one side and Israel on the other. The early years of the previous decade were a honeymoon period between Moscow and Jerusalem. This honeymoon period began when Benjamin Netanyahu came back to power in 2009 and established his second government. This was a period of intensive and successful dialogue between Israel and Russia. Both countries changed their policies toward each other.

During the first decade of this century, it was pretty clear that Israel and the Middle East played a peripheral role in Russian foreign policy interests. Starting from the second decade, however, Russia paid more and more attention to regaining its status as a great power in the Middle East. As we all know, any country pretending to be a global superpower has to engage or set the rules of the game in the Middle East. In 2007, during Vladimir Putin’s famous Munich speech, he openly declared that Russia wanted to regain its Soviet Union status and its global superpower status in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, as well as top ranked foreign policy Russian officials, asserted that Russia was not interested in being another member of the Middle Eastern quartet involved in the Middle East peace process. This quartet included the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. They asserted neither the peace process itself nor the Russian participation in this Middle Eastern quartet had any meaning in principle.

Russia was going to conduct its own policy based on defined principles. It would regain control over the areas of Russian influence. This included countries with a special Russian interest, like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and some others. It also included Israel with its more than one million strong Russian-speaking community. It was also going to present itself as a force able to moderate between adversaries, something they believed the Americans were unable to do. Their policy was to engage equally with Iran and Turkey, Israel and Iran, Sunni and Shia, and Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization. As an example, they engaged with both Gaza and Ramallah simultaneously. In some ways this policy worked but I think that it ended with the current Gaza war. I think Russia would like to present itself as a mediator cooperating with Iran on the one side, and the Arab Sunni world on the other. However, I do not think they successfully engaged the Arab Sunni world even though they are still interested in doing so.

In February 2022, after the beginning of the Ukraine war, the special relations between Moscow and Jerusalem deteriorated. Israel did not join the international sanctions on Russia but they supported Ukraine diplomatically and politically. The Ukrainians were unhappy with both the scope and level of support from Israel. They wanted military support which Israel decided not to provide.

Israel declined to provide military support to Ukraine for several reasons. Israel was still interested in some sort of coordination with Russia in Syria to guarantee an open hand. This open hand refers to freedom of action for the Israelis against the Iranian proxy in Syria. Israel wanted to prevent the establishment of another Iranian front against Israel and to avoid changing the rules of the game regarding  Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Russians were also not interested in open confrontation with Israel because they were deeply involved in the war in Ukraine and they did not need another war front. This is actually the official explanation as to why both sides are still trying to represent their relations as business as usual. This means they are not escalating their differences nor acting to expand the conflict between them. There are half a million Russian Jews in Russia and Israel has some responsibility for Jews in the diaspora. You probably know about the increased the level of antisemitism in Russia. The Israeli government believes that Jerusalem should do everything in its power to defend our fellow Jews in the Russian Federation.

Russia openly supported Hamas after October 7th. This proves Russia is no longer acting as an impartial moderator in the Middle East. Russia took a side and Israel is not that side. Again, I do not believe Russia openly supports Hamas’s aggression against Israel. However, it is much more positively disposed to Hamas than it is to Israel. As an example, we see the Russians welcoming Hamas delegations in Moscow. They also allowed the Moscow stock exchange to be used to launder money for Hamas. So, I am not sure to what degree Russian military consultants helped to develop and to plan Hamas’s attack against Israel on October 7th and I think it is pretty unlikely they were directly involved. However, as I said, Moscow has profited from the current war.

As far as Israeli Ukrainian relations are concerned, I would say that the situation is one of mutual disappointment. That said, diplomatic conflict between the two countries almost disappeared after the 7th of October last year. Ukraine is probably one of the most pro-Israeli countries in Europe right now. While Russia supported Hamas after October 7th, Kyiv supported Israel without any questions

I believe Israeli-Ukrainian relations are improving pretty quickly. We see these improvements at the government level, the public level, and on the level of civil society. Public opinion polls in Ukraine indicate that support for Hamas and the Palestinians is around 4.5%. Similar opinion polls in Israel indicate Israeli society is almost completely pro-Ukrainian, and that includes the Russian-speaking community. This contradicts the beliefs of those in Moscow who assume support for Russia from the one million Russian-speaking Israelis and their Israeli-born children and grandchildren.

I conducted opinion polls as a university professor and when I was chief scientist of the Aliyah and Integration Ministry. The results showed that the majority of Russian-speaking Israelis did not think Israel should support Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. This was already the case in 2014 and not just in this decade. Between 2014 through February 2022, polls indicated the majority of Russian-speaking Israelis believed Israel should not interfere in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. After February 2022, the overwhelming majority of Russian-speaking Israelis believed Israel should be on the side of Ukraine. I do not think that Israel should be reoriented to establish a strategic partnership with Moscow. On the other hand, we never succeeded in persuading Israeli leadership that good relations with Putin and Moscow imply good relations with the Israeli Russian-speaking voters. This is not true.

That is more or less an overview of the situation. I think I will stop here and I will be happy to answer your questions and hear your comments.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you so much Dr. Khanin. I believe it was last year when Putin declared Russia would lead the anti-colonial global struggle. To many observers, this declaration seemed like a cynical throwback to the Soviet Union’s policy. Can you explain the similarities and differences between the former Soviet Union’s aims and those of Russia now?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: I would say it is not an easy question, but it has a pretty easy answer. Russian theologists, writing the new Russian civilization ideology, were pretty frank about their ideas and goals. These theologists included people from the Valdai Club and others. They said that Russia is searching for an identity and they had tried all the Western models of identity already. They also attempted to establish the so-called Federation of Ethnic Nations and a civic nation, but both failed. What was left was an empire identity. According to Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov, modern-day Russia has inherited the tradition of Russia’s liberal democratic movement, the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. According to them, they inherited Russian traditions from all generations. This means the Kremlin has a monopoly over the so-called socialist orientation of the third world and the sponsorship of so-called non-aligned movements. They believe Russia has a foreign policy monopoly over the block of so-called New Marxist regimes in Africa, in Latin America, and Asia.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you so much. Our audience asked how changing relations between Israel and Russia impact Jews living in Russia, especially after October 7th. In some of the Muslim republics, such as Dagestan, we saw massive displays of anti-Jewish rhetoric and even a huge attempted pogrom. How it has been for Jews living in Russia and how does differ for those living in different Russian republics?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: That is also a very good question. I would say it is a multi-billion-dollar question. It is pretty clear that Soviet-style antisemitism never disappeared but it became hidden. Opinion polls and studies conducted by the Levada Center, the Russian Jewish Congress, the Israeli Ministry for Diaspora Affairs, and others, showed the majority of Russians are not openly anti-Semitic. However, they continue to carry a hidden antisemitism. When times are quiet, they have nothing against Jews. However, if the government needs to identify an internal enemy, they will easily and readily join any racist xenophobia, including antisemitism. That is exactly what is happening at the moment. That is an academic answer. If you ask me as an Israeli, I would ask my Russian Jewish brothers what they are waiting for and why they do not leave Russia.

Joseph Epstein: What do you think they are waiting for? What do you think is stopping many of the Jews living in Russia from actually immigrating to Israel, or at the very least Europe or the United States?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: Of the 500,000 Russian Jews, 60% are concentrated in the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. They are pretty well off there and they are not sure they will be able to preserve their level and quality of life elsewhere. Some may be open to emigrating to a European country or to the United States but the Europeans and Americans are suspicious of Russian immigrants. Everything is toxic concerning Russia. Russian passport holders are considered suspicious regardless of their ideological political orientation or ethnicity. The only Western country keeping its gates open for Russian citizens is Israel. Israel accepts Russian immigrants meeting the requirements of the Israeli law of return. A large proportion of Jews made Aliyah from the former Soviet Union. I do not understand why their parents, children, brothers and sisters, and extended family remain in Russia. I think the question is somewhat comparable to asking Jews why they remained in Germany after 1933. That is more or less the situation. People hope for the best, and they are not sure that they will be able to continue their careers elsewhere. It is now 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. People have spent this time building up their lives, careers, and futures in Russia. They were 25 or 30 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed and they are now 55 or 60. They’re not sure they can recreate their lives and careers again in a different country.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you. As you mentioned, since October 7th, Russian-Israeli relations have deteriorated and Israeli-Ukrainian relations have improved. What do you see as the future of Israeli Ukrainian relations? At some point, could we see Israeli deliveries of certain types of military technology to Ukraine?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: Israel is unable to simply open a storage facility and sell the Iron Dome or whatever weapons the Ukrainians request. Israel needs the Iron Dome to protect its skies. However, Israel is currently signing agreements with the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Great Britain and others who want to invest more money in their defense programs. These agreements are based on the understanding they will be provided by the Israeli government in the next five to seven years. Ukraine is not interested in that. Ukraine is interested in getting it now.

India received Israeli technology through a second approach to military cooperation. This approach involves providing technology and assisting in the development of production capabilities in the country purchasing the technology. This includes technology and support for the manufacture of armaments like missiles, drones, artillery, automatic rifles, rockets and anti-tank rockets. This approach has been very successful and Israel is now buying Indian armaments from the Indian factories which are using Israeli technology. That might happen with Ukraine. It happened with Azerbaijan and it was discussed with Ukraine a few years ago. At the time, Kyiv preferred strategic cooperation with Turkey, rather than with Israel. I think that after the end of the war, both sides might come back to this discussion.

After the war with Russia, Ukraine will essentially need to reconstruct its capital. Israel can play an integral role in helping to reconstruct their industry, social sphere, education, healthcare system, and so on.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you. You mentioned the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are part of an overall war between the global north and the global south with the global north consisting mainly of what we term Western countries. In general, popular opinion in the West is very anti-Russian and a lot more pro-Ukrainian. However, the same cannot be said about Israel. How can Western leaders educate their people to understand the connections between these conflicts and their implications?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: I think the majority of people in Western countries are not interested in this. They are interested in gas prices, inflation, labor opportunities, education for their children and better housing. Foreign policy issues are typically on the margins of every electoral campaign, both in Europe and in North America. You probably know better than I do what current US opinion polls show. I would say that if we put aside what we see in the university campuses and in the publications and works of all sorts of centers that enjoy the financial support of Gulf monarchies and so on, the majority of the American public is on the side of Israel.

You probably paid attention to the research conducted a few months ago in the United Kingdom. It showed 19% of the population supported Israel while 9% supported Palestinian Arabs but not necessarily Hamas. The rest did not support either side, sympathized equally with both sides or were not interested and did not care. This implies we should not overestimate the anti-Israeli influence. I think the Western public understands pretty well that Israel and Ukraine are conducting the same war, each on their own front. The YouGov study, published at the end of March, canvassed the public in Great Britain on their support for Israelis versus Palestinians. 29% of people expressed support for Palestinian Arabs and 15% supported Israelis. Almost twice as many people supported Palestinians over Israelis. The next question asked who people sympathized with in the current war. Around 75% of respondents sympathized with Palestinians while more than 60% sympathized with Israel. Among those who sympathized with Palestinians, however, only 11% supported Hamas and what they did. So, we should not panic. With respect to the conflict in the Middle East, I would say that the Western public is not stupid at all.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia and Iran have cooperated on a much deeper level, especially when it comes to military cooperation. As Russia loses influence around the world due to the war in Ukraine, Iran is filling in a lot of the power vacuums. An example is the south Caucasus in Syria. How does this impact Russian-Iranian relations? We have seen a deeper level of cooperation between these two countries but do you think they still have a good level of trust between them?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: My impression is there is no trust between the Russians and Iranians. This mistrust did not develop today or yesterday but quite some time ago. There is not any trust, even at top levels. I was present at a conference of international security conducted by the Russian Defense Ministry. I watched as Iranian generals and Russian generals spoke to each other and I did not get the impression they trusted each other.

Russia is deeply involved in the war in Ukraine. As a result they have had to abandon some of their spheres of influence in places like Syria and the Southern Caucasus. This has provided Iran the opportunity to infiltrate. Moscow is not happy about this but they have to reconcile themselves to it because they are reliant on Iranian support. They need Iranian armaments, Iranian shells, Iranian bullets, Iranian helicopters, and Iranian drones. So, they have to permit the Iranians to extend their geopolitical influence. How long this symbiotic relationship between Tehran and Moscow will continue, is a good question. Please invite me in six months from now and we will discuss it again.

Joseph Epstein: We would be happy to discuss this with you again in six months. Just a very quick follow-up. As I understand it, Russia promised fighter jets to Iran. Considering their outdated air force, this is something the Iranians really need. So far, Russia has still not delivered the fighter jets. Do you know why that is? Do you think that they will deliver them sometime in the near future?

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: I think they will deliver the jets because they have no choice. They are reliant on Iranian support in many different fields. They have no choice but to meet Iranian demands in the diplomatic, political, military, economic field and nuclear fields. We witnessed the Israeli response to Iran after the April 14th Iranian attack on Israel. The Israeli counterattack focused on Iran’s defense system near the Natanz zone. The Natanz zone is defended by the S-300 Russian air defense systems which are quite advanced. Israel showed that these do not provide protection against Israeli attacks and the defense systems the Russians provided to Iran will not be an obstacle for the Israelis. So, I predict Tehran will increase its demands and require the Russians to provide them with more and more advanced Russian military technologists. I do not see any reason why Moscow will refuse their demands.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you so much. It appears we are out of time. I would like to thank you so much, Dr. Khanin, it was a pleasure interviewing you. I would also like to thank our audience for being with us today. Again, if you found the webinar informative, please share the link once it has been sent out. Thank you.

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: Thank you so much. I still owe answers to Michel Sik. He is asking about the impact of the political situation on Jews who live in Russia. There is no impact because the Jews in Russia prefer to stay out of this politics. The three biggest Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union are the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian communities. The Ukrainian community mobilized in total support of their government. The Russian community prefers not to interfere in the issue. As far as I am aware, the war in Ukraine has not impacted relations between the Lukashenko administration and the local organized Jewish community.

Joseph Epstein: Thank you, professor Khanin.

Dr. Ze’ev Khanin: Thank you very much.

Joseph Epstein: Bye.



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