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Sharon's Withdrawal Will Launch a Blow on Putin's Positions
Sami Rosen, AIA Israeli section
Russian version

(photo: Haaretz)  
On the night of the 4th/5th of January, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who will be 78 in February, was hospitalized as a consequence of a massive apoplectic stroke. Local politicians and observers consider that even in case the Prime Minister's health stabilizes, he still won't be able to resume his activity. According to the general opinion, 'Sharon's era' has gone into history. The Israelis and their Arab neighbors are now trying to work out, how the withdrawal of the disengagement plan architect from the political arena will redound upon the situation in the Jewish State, and upon the perspectives of the Middle Eastern conflict regulation. The end of Ariel Sharon's political career will, however, have much more broad consequences. In particular, this event will inevitably impact the relations between Israel and Russia, as well as the Kremlin's regional positions in general.

The Initiator of Strategic Partnership

In the second half of the 1990s, Sharon was playing one of the key roles in the dialogue between the two states. As the Minister of National Infrastructures and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, (1996-1999), he was striving for strengthening the Israeli-Russian cooperation in the energy sphere. In this connection, his main effort was directed toward realization of the Blue Stream project. Sharon was aiming at connecting Israel to the Russian-Turkish gas pipeline (the authors of this idea were: then the Russian oligarch, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Avigdor Liberman, who was then the Head of the Israeli Prime Minister's Office). Strengthening of cooperation with Russia made it possible for Israel not only to end up with its gas dependence on Egypt, but also to become an important transit point on the way of the Russian energy carriers' transportation to the Southeast Asia and the Far East (via the port city of Eilat, situated on the Red Sea shore). According to initial evaluations voiced in the spring 1997, worth of the Israeli deal in the Blue Stream framework reached some $2 billion. In the autumn of the same year, Sharon informed about studying of a possibility of Russian oil and hard coal supplies to Israel.
Ariel Sharon was pursuing not only economic, but also far-reaching geopolitical goals. He considered that the growing import of the Islamic fundamentalism from the Arab East creates suitable conditions for Israel – Turkey - Russia strategic partnership. The Jewish State has been at strife with the Arab world since the very moment of its establishment. Turkey was considered a traditional rival of Saudi Arabia in influencing the Turkic Muslim peoples, in particular – those in the post-Soviet space. From the midst 1990s, in the Northern Caucasus Russia entered a war with the Arab Mujaheddin, who had an unspoken support of a certain part of the establishment of Saudi Arabia, and of the other petroleum monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Against this background, Sharon aimed at establishing a tripartite cooperation in the sphere of energy and economy, with further creating of a three-way strategic alliance. Israeli-Turkish close partnership was then favoring the realization of this plan. On Ankara's side, the basis of the Israeli-Turkish cooperation was the Army Command. Turkish generals, as well as their Israeli counterparts, were at least extremely suspicious in their treatment of Iran. Sharon hoped that Russia's involvement in Israeli-Turkish alliance, with regard of the Kremlin's economic interests, would allow weakening the cooperation between Moscow and Tehran in nuclear and military sphere.
The geopolitical scheme that was worked out by Sharon, though seemingly absolutely logical, stayed to be only a theoretical project. Negotiations about Israel's participation in Blue Stream project realization were soon stuck in the impasse. In February 1999, not without a hand of the pro-Egyptian financial lobby, the scandal broke out in Israel in connection with one of Sharon's and his confidant Avigdor Ben- Gil's visits to Moscow (the latter was then the Chairman of the Board of Israel Aircraft Industry). In May same year, the Likud party, to which the initiator of strategic partnership with Russia belonged, lost power, and he found himself in the opposition.
Already as the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon did not abandon his plan of a three-way energy cooperation between Israel, Turkey, and Russia. This issue was once again discussed during his visit to Moscow in November 2003. In the summer of the following year, a delegation of the Russian Gazprom company visited Israel, headed by the Chairman Aleksei Miller. Negotiations on the Russian gas deliveries were attended by the representatives of the Israeli Prime Minister Office. In December 2005, only few weeks before Sharon left the political arena, Putin declared that the construction of the Russian-Turkish pipeline to reach the Israeli shore is planned.
It is also worth mentioning that Sharon had practically predicted formation of a Russian-Turkish strategic alliance, which did take place in 2004-2005, but in different geopolitical conditions, and without Israel's participation.

Putin's Israeli Vis-à-vis
Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin (photo: Corbis)  
Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin  

Ariel Sharon won the Parliamentary elections in Israel in the same year, when Vladimir Putin officially started his presidential cadence in Russia. Further development of connections between the countries was in many respects defined by personal relations of their leaders. The two men got acquainted in the first year of Sharon's rule, during his visit to Moscow in September, 2001. Establishing of trust relations on the top level was promoted by variety of personal and global factors (that will be described below). In total, since the moment of his coming into power, Sharon visited Russia three times (also in October 2002, and November 2003). Moreover, it is in the period of his occupying the Prime Minister's Office, that the Head of Russia visited Israel for the first time in history of bilateral relations.
Not once during the last five years there were disagreements and contradictions between the two countries. Main reasons for that were as follows: the Kremlin's persecution of the Russian Jewish oligarchs; discrepancies about Arafat's role in escalation of the Middle Eastern conflict, and Moscow's refusal to break up its contacts with the first Palestinian President; Russian weapons' sales to Syria; Russia's continuing cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere. As a consequence, by the end of 2004 – beginning of 2005, the tension in relations between the two states reached its apogee. Due to the personal contacts between Sharon and Putin, the bilateral dialogue continued in a normal mode. This fact allowed carrying out the Russian President's visit to Israel in April 2005. Further on, while avoiding unnecessary publicity, Sharon headed toward activation of ties with Moscow. Special attention was paid to enhancement of cooperation in such spheres a as energy and military industry (with participation of the third parties, in particular – India and Uzbekistan). In this connection, on a number of occasions the intentions and actions of the Israelis contradicted the interests and wishes of the US administration. However, the White House quite often turned a blind eye to this fact, not willing to exert an excessive pressure on the architect of the Disengagement Plan. Further realization of the Road Map was much more important for the Americans.
Not meeting any special obstacles from the side of Washington, Sharon activated his contacts with Moscow in the course of the last months. As far as the key issues of bilateral relations are concerned, these contacts were of a backstage character. In certain cases both sides used the secret services; more often – various freelance advisors and 'private' intermediaries. Main interest in this connection is provoked by the 2005 trips to Israel of Gennady Krepets, Director of the Institute of Natural Resources (the countryman and the protégé of the Russian Minister of Natural Resources), and of the German businessman Josef Jurgen Bauer.
Practically till the last days of his work, in parallel with creation of the new political party – Kadima, and with preparations for the parliamentary elections, Sharon continued to pay attention to the Russian thematic. Just at the beginning of this week he gave an order to the heads of several secret services to prepare a survey of alignment of forces in Putin's entourage, and of the Jewish oligarchs close to the Kremlin. Sharon's backstage informers managed to fulfill this order quickly. However, their data and analysis will now hardly be of any need...

Sharon's Phenomenon at the Geopolitical Background
  (photo: Corbis)

In Israeli politics Ariel Sharon was one of the last representatives of the 'Founding Fathers' generation, which has already become a history. As in majority of cases, as far as this generation is concerned, Sharon's family originated from the Russian Empire, and he himself understood Russian quite well, and could even communicate in it when necessary (during his meetings with Putin, the Israeli Prime Minister sometimes half-jokingly corrected the interpreter). Sharon very well remembered the years of the World War II, and took the Holocaust of the European Jewry very heavily. Therefore, he treated the Red Army with a pietism, thinking that it prevented the 'final solution of the Jewish question' (Sharon's attitude toward the Red Army was not changed even by the fact that in a number of the Israeli-Arab wars its officers were at the side of his adversaries). All these personal factors in many respects defined Sharon's interest and position toward Russia. They also favored his establishing of relations with Putin.
In foreign politics Sharon often demonstrated a bigger independence than the one that was allowed by the unspoken Israeli-American consensus. He certainly saw the USA as the most important strategic partner of the Jewish State. However, in his opinion, Israel has a right to conduct independent policy, which does not necessarily always have to fit Washington's preferences. First time the future Israeli Prime Minister demonstrated his "refractoriness" was while occupying the post of Defense Minister, in 1981-1983. He was then the main initiator of the Lebanon campaign, totally ignoring the interests of the White House. At the East European direction Sharon took a clearly anti-American position in the spring of 1999, with the start of the bombings of Yugoslavia by the NATO aviation. In distinction from other
Ariel Sharon and George Bush (photo: Corbis)  
Ariel Sharon and George Bush  
Israeli politicians he publicly condemned the actions of the North-Atlantic Alliance, voicing the support to the Serbs.
When he became the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon generally preserved the orientation toward the USA. American interests, however, were not always taken into account by him. Many of his forerunners could not allow such a thing. It was most of all evident in the first months of Al-Aqsa Intifada, and in Israel's relations with China, Russia, and India.
Signs of independence from the USA on the part of the Israeli Premier played into the Kremlin's hands. Political functionaries and analysts close to the Russian President's administration tried to present this situation as if Israel itself stands against Washington's 'Imperial ambitions'. In their interpretation, this was yet another proof of the rightness of the Russian multi-polar world order concept. This concept gained the official status after Vladimir Putin's coming into power, and has been broadly popularized by the Kremlin in light of the Iraqi campaign. Its essence boils down to the fastest neutralization of 'American dictate' at the international arena. Putin and his entourage see the accomplishment of this goal first of all in the renaissance of Russia's 'Imperial might' and returning it the lost influence in Eastern Europe, Central and Southern Asia, and in the Middle East.
Since the first years of his rule, Putin has understood quite well that it is impossible to ensure Russia's influence in the Middle East, using traditional Soviet methods and relying only on the old allies. One of the main conditions for that is strengthening of Moscow's positions in zone of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Herewith, the Kremlin's regional interests coincided with its drift to extend cultural, and if possible – political, influence toward the World's Russian-speaking Diaspora. Considerable part of the latter (over one million people) lives in Israel.
In both cases, the Putin's officials had to preserve the principle of 'equilibrium', which was declared by a person so unloved by them (for his pro-Western orientation), the first Minister of Foreign Affairs of the post-Soviet Russia, Andrei Kozyrev. 'Equilibrium' meant a steady development of relations both with the Arab world, and the Jewish State. Thus, Putin was very lucky that the power in Israel passed not to a mere 'Washington's marionette', but to a hard-bitten, independent Ariel Sharon. Nevertheless, the truth is that in today's Israel there is no alternative to Sharon, including in what concerns the Russian-Israeli relations. None of his possible heirs has such international weight and influence inside the country, as did now former Prime Minister. None of them is distinguished by such a special approach to Russia, characteristic of Sharon. And what is most important: none of potential candidates to occupy the Prime Minister's Office will take liberty of behaving so independently toward the USA, as the legendary General repeatedly did. The Kremlin has lost its main vis-à-vis in the Jewish State. It will now be much harder to conduct its balanced policy in the Middle East. 

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