Vladimir Putin’s Tangled Stance on Israel

The Russian president comes out against settlement construction in the West Bank. But Moscow’s relationship with Israel has never been better.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a joint news conference in Moscow's Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in a joint news conference in Moscow's Kremlin. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama agree on very little. But on the subject of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, they're on the same page. In a speech delivered Sunday at the Valdai Club, an annual gathering of Russian experts, Putin blamed the settlement construction for increased tension in the Middle East and beyond.

"The humiliation of the Palestinian people and any other people is a source of danger and instability and must be removed with all means and ways acceptable to all parties," Putin said.

Considering the source, this position is more than a little rich. Throughout Putin's lengthy tenure as the country's de facto leader, Moscow has shown little reluctance in claiming territory it views as sovereign, most recently by annexing the former Ukrainian-held territory of Crimea in March. That incident drew international condemnation and led to economic sanctions, but Israel, curiously, said little. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained its neutrality on the Russia/Ukraine dispute, a position that did not go unnoticed in Washington.

"We were surprised Israel did not join the vast majority of countries that vowed to support Ukraine's territorial integrity in the United Nations," Jen Psaki, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, said at the time.

Russia and Israel have grown closer in other ways. Putin is the first Russian leader to visit the Jewish state, and in 2012 appeared at a ceremony in Netanya, Israel, to honor Jewish soldiers serving in the Red Army during World War Two. Israel has a large Russian diaspora, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel's most prominent right-wing advocates, was born and raised in the former Soviet Union.

Russia, however, has not abandoned the Palestinian cause. Moscow consistently supports Palestinian interests in the United Nations, and has retained ties to regimes implacably opposed to Israel. Russia supports Iran's nuclear program, which Israel regards as an existential threat, and has sold arms to both Tehran and to Bashar Assad's embattled regime in Syria. And earlier this year, Moscow invited Khaled Meshaal, a key Hamas official, to Russia to meet with Putin Administration officials. Israel, the United States, and Europe regard Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2005, as a terrorist organization.

Unlike the United States and China, Russia has refrained from direct attempts to mediate the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. But Vladimir Putin's position on the settlements shows that, warm ties aside, he remains unwilling to march in lockstep with Israel—even if it does mean agreeing with Washington.