Israeli defense officials came for talks in Moscow on December 11. The impressive delegation was led by Major General Aharon Haliva, head of the Operations Directorate of the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The Russian side was represented by Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.
The formal reason for the visit was the need to discuss the developments on the Israeli-Lebanese border. But the range of topics covered during the negotiations was much broader, and their goal much more significant. Israeli commanders believe that Russia is uniquely positioned to influence the leaders of Hezbollah, the Shia religious and patriotic organization in Lebanon, and, therefore, to shape its plans with regard to Israel. And they are right, to some extent.
On December 5, 2018, the Israeli Northern Command (which is responsible for the country’s northern border) began a military exercise in direct proximity of the Lebanese border dubbed Operation Northern Shield. Its main goal, the Israeli insisted, was to “demonstrate military might.” The troops were tasked with careful inspection of the area and search for underground tunnels leading from Lebanon into Israeli territory.
The first underground passage dug under the border was discovered by the Israeli in September. Another one was found right before the operation, during which a third tunnel was identified. Israeli military intelligence officials say that the tunnels were made using obsolete techniques and do not pose a serious threat to the country’s security: they are designed to let through a limited number of raiders without any heavy weapons and cannot be used to blow up military facilities or other important infrastructure. At the same time, Tel Aviv used these findings to accuse Hezbollah of subversive activities against Israel and artificial escalation of the situation in the region. More importantly, they proved instrumental for resuming dialog with Russia.
On December 8, Israel initiated a phone conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the events on the Israeli-Lebanese border. They talked and agreed to organize negotiations between the military agencies. The one-day visit of the Israeli defense officials to Moscow was the result of this conversation.
Israel is doing its best to demonstrate its willingness to make amends for the September 18 incident in the Syrian air, when a Russian Il-20 military aircraft was brought down and crashed in the Mediterranean Sea with its fifteen crewmembers. Tel Aviv did not make any official apologies. But a big number of officers were dismissed following an investigation, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had to resign.
Netanyahu tried to have a proper conversation with President Putin at international forums three times, but the meetings were short and formal. One can be fairly certain that the main goal of the Israeli delegation’s latest visit to Moscow was to win Gerasimov’s assistance in organizing Israeli-Russian top-level talks.
To their credit, most IDF commanders, unlike the political circles, demonstrate great respect towards the Russian military and, I would say, a reverential trust in them. The Israeli army is familiar with the maxim that goes, “Wars are started by politicians, but fought and ended by the military”. Its commanders are always ready to fight for their motherland till the end and know the price of war only too well. But they do not want politicians to interfere with military affairs. And they want even less to obey orders that contradict military honor and disgrace the army.
Relations of military men are always different from those between politicians. It is no coincidence that military diplomacy often succeeds where civilians fail. This time, the military, again, were able to agree on a meeting of the two countries’ leaders. The time, venue and agenda of the talks are yet to be determined, but there are plenty of topics to discuss.
Even though the author is critical about Israel’s policies and practical actions in the region, he still hopes that the parties will overcome the main obstacles and restore a trusting relationship, as it would be beneficial for both Israel and Russia.