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As published in the Jerusalem Post

Iran is now a thorn in Putin’s side. With the Assad regime secure, Putin believes Iranian military activity in Syria is no longer justified and could threaten Russia’s position there.

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to meet on July 16 in Helsinki for discussions on a broad array of issues. Trump may seek Moscow’s help in eliminating Iran’s military presence in Syria. In recent Senate testimony, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted, “If the Russians could get the Iranians out of there, I would applaud it.” So would Israel! Although not a participant in the Helsinki negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will play a pivotal behind-the-scenes role. His productive personal relationships with both Putin and Trump will serve as a catalyst for any US-Russia deal on Syria.

Netanyahu talks of his “great respect for Russia for its contributions to civilization and for the courage of its people” in the fight against Nazism. Putin describes their relationship as “good” and “trust-based.” One of his state-run think tanks said, “If this personal relationship… didn’t exist, our relationship with Israel would have been much tenser.” The Russia-Israel tactical alliance is an example of realpolitik, “practical politics” – a pragmatic pursuit of foreign policy based on national interest rather than moral or ideological considerations. Neither country hides its disagreements.

Israel is a democracy and Russia an autocracy. Despite holding vastly different worldviews, the trust the two men have cultivated enables them to work together wherever their interests coincide. Netanyahu and Trump also enjoy close personal ties. They speak frequently about a host of issues, including national security. The US-Israel alliance is, in Trump’s words, “as close now as, maybe, ever before.” Netanyahu agrees: “The American- Israel alliance [has] never been stronger.”

Although America and Russia have been adversaries and the personal relationship between Trump and Putin is yet to be defined, both men are pragmatists. Trump sees a problem and wants to fix it. “Practical politics” is what he does and he sees benefits in repairing relations with the Kremlin. Putin, yearning to be viewed as a global leader, recently said, “We are ready for dialogue [with America]…. I think it is long overdue.” Three pragmatists whose interests are not always the same, but whose mutual goal is restraining Iran in Syria. Putin intended that Iran remain in Syria as a junior partner in propping up the Assad regime, but hasn’t supported Tehran’s provocative actions against Israel or the projection of Iranian power and, with it, Islamism throughout the region. Since Russia entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, Netanyahu has directly conveyed to Putin that the Iranian presence in Syria is an existential threat that Jerusalem will oppose at all costs. Once he convinced Putin that Israel’s military strategy in Syria is purely defensive and not to topple the Assad regime, Russia gave the Israelis carte blanche to strike Iranian weapons deliveries to Hezbollah and Iranian military infrastructure across Syria. Putin views the Jewish state as a check on Iranian ambitions. Iran is now a thorn in Putin’s side. With the Assad regime secure, Putin believes Iranian military activity in Syria is no longer justified and could threaten Russia’s position there. Despite its continued warm relations with Tehran, Moscow has called for Iran, other foreign powers (except Russia) and Hezbollah to leave Syria. Israel’s focus, like Trump’s, is on thwarting Iran – and, to this end, Netanyahu has concluded that Putin is a useful partner. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) observed, “The Israelis have been pushing this idea of getting the Russians to push Iran out.” Netanyahu was wise to forge a productive relationship with both leaders. Israel will now be part of the consequential negotiations on Syria, and Netanyahu’s advice will be valuable as the Trump-Putin relationship evolves. In “the tempest” that is the Middle East, Netanyahu recognized the benefit of cultivating a “strange bedfellow” – Vladimir Putin – and his “practical politics” may pay off for Israel and the US. Vice President Mike Pence remarked, “The winds of change are blowing across the Middle East… old foes are finding new ground for cooperation.” As Trump would say, “We’ll see what happens.”

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