U.S. Out, Russia In: Can Israel Stand Up to the New Sheriff in Town?

Thirteen years ago, Russneft, the Russian energy company founded by Michael Gutseriev, caused a huge stir in Israel after it said it would join the bidding for the Ashdod oil refinishes. In the end the Shin Bet security service vetoed the idea after examining Russneft’s structure and ownership. A year later Gutseriev revealed that the government was pressuring him to sell to Oleg Deripaska, a crony of Vladimir Putin’s. Gutseriev fled to London and Russneft was nationalized.

Four years later, in 2010, vast quantities of natural gas had been found offshore Israel in the Tamar and Leviathan reservoirs. Russia feared Israel might break its grip on the European gas market and a team of executives from Gazprom were sent to Israel. Officially they were here to talk about buying liquefied natural gas from Tamar; behind the scenes, they were negotiating for drilling rights.

Again, the Russians were sent off. “The worry was that we would be importing corruption. Pure and simple. Noting more than that. We didn’t want them here,” says one former senior government official.

Russian forces armored vehicles patrol the Syrian border in Kobani, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. STR,AP

Against the background of recent geopolitical developments in the Middle East – the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds, Russia troops coming in to fill the vacuum and Trump’s “America First policy” – raises the question of what will happen the next time Israel stands in the way of Russian economic interests. Next time it could be Russia alone to which Israel can turn to cope with the Iranian threat.

Two events that occurred last week only strengthen the need to address this issue. The first was U.S. President Donald Trump’s explaining why America was sending 2,800 troops to Saudi Arabia despite his vow to bring troops home. “Well, the Saudi Arabians are paying for it,” he said. The second was Putin’s visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.