The Practice of Friendship Balancing: Russia-Israel Relations, 2015 to 2021

  • Chen Kertcher

    Dr. Kertcher is assistant professor of international relations and vice chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies-Political Science at Ariel University.

  • Dima Course

    Dr. Course is a postdoctoral fellow in Russian politics at Ariel University.

Since the Gaza war erupted in October 2023, Israel’s reactions have been met with criticism from a key friend: Russia. However, Moscow’s public condemnation of the humanitarian crisis has not changed its material or normative policies toward Israel in other respects. This article analyzes Russia-Israel relations, especially concerning the Syrian conflict between 2015 and 2021. It demonstrates how the two states developed norms and structural practices—including regular meetings of elites, public statements, and other mechanisms—to mitigate disputes. These strategies created and sustained a friendship balance that prevented rivalry and escalation between the two. This process has helped them maintain their relationship during the recent spike of violence despite increasing strains.

The Gaza war ignited by Hamas’s onslaught on October 7, 2023, has tested the friendship between Russia and Israel as part of what seems to be an ever-increasing polarization of the global political order. The Kremlin has condemned Israel’s operations and invited delegations from the militant group to Moscow for intra-factional reconciliation talks among Palestinians. Russia also called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire as a prerequisite for establishing humanitarian assistance at the required scale and for creating the conditions needed for the release of hostages,” and it has voted for several United Nations Security Council resolutions to pause or end the violence.1 However, analyzing relations between the two states through this prism alone may distort the complexities of global and regional politics. Moscow has many interests and goals in the Middle East. Some are contradictory, such as maintaining friendly relations with Israel, the Gulf states, and Egypt, as well as with Iran. Despite the recent disputes, it is not clear that Russia has become fundamentally hostile toward Israel.2A key case that sheds light on these complex relations is the civil war in Syria. Despite the fact that Russia and Israel sought opposite goals, they were able to reconcile their differences and balance their friendship. Zvi Magen, the former Israeli ambassador to Russia, summarized the apparent contradiction: “While bilateral relations between Russia and Israel are, on the whole, excellent, Russia has been a major supporter of Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.”3 The relations between the two states therefore pose a puzzle: How have these two states, which often find themselves on different sides of conflicts, maintained their positive relations and not become direct enemies?

This article contends that the two countries have acted in accordance with what we term “friendship balancing.” This occurs when two countries have conflicting interests but their goals require them not to risk the deterioration of their relations. Friendship is balanced through two main practices. The first is normative, with the two parties maintaining shared values and symbolic gestures. The second is the use of de-escalation structures that the two friends establish to minimize negative outcomes. Together these provide a model of how friendship is built and maintained when two countries are forced to mitigate conflicting interests. The findings illuminate both the resiliency and the limits to normative and structural relations between these states as they face increased threats: the fallout from the ongoing Ukraine invasion for Russia, and the repercussions from the Gaza war for Israel.

This study analyzes Russian-Israeli relations from 2015 to 2021, providing a descriptive and explanatory account and a detailed examination of the evidence for friendship balancing.4 There are several reasons why we chose this case. First, Russia and Israel are associated with different alliances in the Middle East. Russia is usually aligned with Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and other Shia actors, while Israel’s key ally is their enemy, the United States. Second, when Moscow directly intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, there was a clear threat that its forces—especially due to their air operations—could engage against Israel’s.5 Third, Russia and Israel have a unique bilateral relationship that should be explored through the prism of friendship.

We chose to terminate our analysis in 2021 because the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February the following year prompted many changes in the international arena that require a separate analysis of the friendship dyad. Moreover, the Gaza war may lead to new insights into, and possibly the deterioration of, relations between the two states. However, as we explain, our findings from the Syria case remain valid. This analysis uses records of official meetings, statements from leadership, and publicly available information on Russia-Israel relations through English-, Hebrew-, and Russian-language sources. The evidence has been compared with contemporary studies of the Syrian conflict.

The paper first explains the research framework and the model of friendship balancing. We then briefly examine the history of Israeli-Russian relations and the threat posed by the Syrian conflict. Finally, we analyze the practices employed by the parties to mitigate their conflicting interests.


What makes states decide how to manage their relations with other states through offensive, balancing (internal or external), buck-passing, or bandwagoning strategies?6 The question becomes more important in a heterogeneous region like the Middle East, which has a wide variety of states, including global and middle powers; democracies, autocracies, and monarchies; and nonstate groups with offensive military capacities, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Moreover, there is no overarching institutional design, such as a regional organization, and no common identity or religious, cultural, or governmental system.7 This regional heterogeneity has only increased in the 21st century, as studies indicate more diverse world orders exist in parallel. This has replaced the simple dichotomy between the liberal, imperial “West” and “the Rest.”8

This complex world in which actors have dynamic ties of both enmity and friendship is not well studied in the field of international relations. Some analyses have shown how states can transform from enemies into friends.9 Others have explained how actors with ideological differences can cooperate and become “frenemies” to address common threats.10 However, a study based on quantitative data arrived at inconclusive results regarding whether countries act based on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”11 But what happens when friends try to achieve divergent goals? Does one perceive the other as a threat while the other does not? Do such divergences ruin their relations? Will such states necessarily become enemies?

Friendship as a political concept, based on gradual and evolving processes, widens our perspective on relations between actors. Friendships have different levels. They can be strengthened through treaties or alliances and can even encourage political integration. They can also deteriorate due to internal changes or external threats. Often, relations are based on shared values between leaders and societies. However, they also have structural elements, and they depend on such mechanisms to maintain these ties. Therefore, both norms and institutions are central to friendship.12

When confronted by threats to their friendship, for instance due to divergent goals, states may mitigate their differences through normative-value and structural practices. Taken together, these constitute “friendship balancing.” When states fail to balance their friendship, we will observe a deterioration of their relations. If this continues unabated—especially when one of the actors sides with agents that threaten the other—without proper friendship balancing, it can increase anxiety and encourage the termination of the relationship.


The relationship between these two states can be described as a friendship between actors who do not have a formal alliance. However, this was not the case during the bipolar order of the Cold War. During that period, the USSR espoused anti-Zionist propaganda around the world and encouraged its allies to vote in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 of 1975, which determined that “Zionism is a form of racism.” It also armed Arab countries like Egypt and Syria against Israel. This enmity ceased toward the end of the Cold War.13

Neoclassical theory emphasizes the role of elites in the formulation of foreign policy. According to Dmitri Trenin, Vladimir Putin has adopted a realist approach to foreign relations, but the Russian president is also “the most pro-Israel, pro-Jewish leader” in Russian history.14 Putin acknowledges Israel as the national home of the Jews and has a positive view of Jews, in general. He was influenced as a young boy by Jewish teachers and has had Jewish friends since childhood.15 The Russian leader’s views fit well with Israeli prime ministers such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.16

A second element of the states’ friendship is shared identity and culture. The end of the Cold War brought large-scale emigration of Russian Jews to Israel from the newly formed, economically shaken Commonwealth of Independent States. Approximately 12 percent of Israel’s population descend from these ex-Soviet countries, and the Russian minority in Israel is one of the largest enclaves of that national diaspora in the world. Moreover, Russia’s relationship with these émigrés is crucial for cultural and economic reasons. The Russians allowed the Jews to leave freely, and there are extensive relations between Jews who arrived from Russia and those who remained.17 A third component of the friendship relates to the new nationalism in Russia. For instance, Putin commemorates the Great Patriotic War, known in the West as World War II, as a national trauma shared with the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.18

The positive relations between the two countries can also be seen in Israel’s break with US and EU policies toward Russia. In the late 1990s, the Israeli foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, openly supported Moscow’s insistence that the province of Kosovo belongs to Serbia. Israel also supported Russian’s brutal military campaign in Chechnya.19 Further, it refused to condemn Russia over its occupation of Crimea in 2014 and did not cooperate with American and European sanctions. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s acting foreign minister at the time, declared, “I don’t understand the idea that Israel has to get mired in this.”20

Finally, trade between Israel and Russia began after the Cold War, but the ex-Soviet state’s devastated economy hindered its development. However, when the Russian economy began to stabilize in the early 2000s, its trade balance with Israel rose to $1 billion.21 Despite this progress toward friendship, Russia did not abandon good Cold War-era relations with Israel’s key enemies, Iran and Syria, and continued to sell arms to both. In 2014, it wiped out 73 percent of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to the former Soviet Union. Still, at Israel’s request, Russia refused to sell the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system or other advanced weapons to Syria or Iran.22


The friendship between Russia and Israel was challenged when the two countries had directly conflicting interests in the Syrian civil war, one of the most brutal in the 21st century. The war, which began in 2011, has caused approximately 600,000 deaths, displaced 6.6 million people, and forced the same number to flee the country.23

The war provoked interventions by three main actors. The pro-Assad allies included Russia, Iran, and myriad Shia nonstate actors, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi militias. The second alliance, composed of many moderate Salafi Syrian militias, received aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Sunni states. The final group was constituted by radical Salafi organizations with global revolutionary doctrines, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.24 These alliances placed Russia and Israel in conflict.

Russian Interests in Syria

Much of the literature agrees that Russia’s primary goal in the Middle East is to counter US influence and strengthen its position in international politics by projecting power.25 Since the 1990s, Syria has been Moscow’s main ally in the region.26 As the civil war evolved, the Russians had several interests. First, the collapse of the Assad government threatened the postwar economic and military cooperation between the two states.27 Second, Russia’s largest military base in the Mediterranean was in the Syrian port city of Tartus.28 Third, operations in Syria would provide the Russian military with intensive, real-world training, as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.29 Fourth, as approximately 15 to 20 percent of its population is Muslim, Russia has an interest in preventing the spread of radical Islam, and ISIS threatened to export this ideology beyond the region.30 Fifth, Moscow’s support for Damascus would also prove its commitment to its allies.31 Therefore, the collapse of the regime was a threat to its long-term strategy in the region. When Assad’s coalition was on the verge of defeat in early 2015, as it controlled only a fraction of Syria, the Kremlin decided on a military intervention to enable the president and his supporters to regain control.

Israeli Interests in Syria

Israel’s concerns over Syria revolve around several issues. First, after the June 1967 war, the Israelis took control of the Golan Heights, which they officially annexed in 1981. Traditionally, Israel’s main interest in Syria is maintaining the ceasefire line that runs through that area. Second, the state seeks to weaken Iranian dominance in Syria and Lebanon, especially through Tehran’s most trusted ally, Hezbollah, which has amassed hundreds of thousands of rockets.32 During the Syrian civil war, Israel waged an extensive bombing campaign in the country against Iranian and Hezbollah personnel and facilities.33

When Russia intervened in 2015, there were fears that the entire anti-Israel bloc would be strengthened, that Shia militias would be deployed along the border, and that they would be strengthened by Russian air support and anti-missile batteries.34 For its part, Moscow saw possible Israeli activities inside Syria as likely detrimental to its goal of tilting the conflict in Assad’s favor. This made Russia and Israel potential rivals.

How is friendship maintained when confronted with such threats? Both sides initiated shared normative practices and cooperation structures to mitigate their divergencies while limiting the primary goals relating to their allies, in the Russian case, and their enemies, in the Israeli case. This is explained in two parts. The first elaborates on practices undertaken at the leadership level to maintain shared values. The second explains the mechanisms they used to limit their goals and balance their friendship.

Normative Practices

Russia provided a diplomatic umbrella to the pro-Assad alliance and frequently launched military operations to support its members (pro-Assad Syrians, Shia militias, and Iranian units), which were executing violent operations, including mass atrocities. Surprisingly, Russian and Israeli leaderships continued to demonstrate to their publics that the relationship was one of shared values. Three main practices were crucial in this regard: regular leadership meetings and public statements, construction of a shared identity and memory, and public gestures.

The first aspect of normative values is the relationship between the Russian and Israeli leaders. Despite the increasing risks in the Syrian conflict, Putin maintained a rapport with Netanyahu.35 This developed over nearly two decades. When they first met in 2000, Netanyahu held no official position. They spoke for hours. As Netanyahu relates,

What did we talk about in those four hours? Russia, Israel, America, the world and Putin’s positive attitude toward the Russian-Jewish community. But it wasn’t the things we said; it was how we said them….[This would] later prove important for Israel’s security in its battle against Iran’s attempts to implant itself militarily in Syria.36

The two leaders’ relations evolved through the second decade of the 21st century, bolstered by their shared concept of strong leadership, embedded in a realist worldview.37

This continued after the Russian intervention in Syria. Between 2015 and 2021, Netanyahu and Putin met 15 times and had no fewer than 49 phone conversations, averaging more than two meetings and five calls per year. The number of in-person visits could have been higher were it not for the pandemic. This unique, personal relationship gained importance after 2015 and was even a cause of concern for the United States.38 The visits were covered positively in the media as a sign of cooperation and understanding between the two leaders. Visiting Russia in 2019, Netanyahu stated to Putin that this was not just a question of Jewishness:

I am happy to meet you again. The relations between Russia and Israel have never been closer. On the one hand this is natural. As you said, there are over one million Russian-speakers in Israel….Tightening the relations between us, Mr. President, is also the result of two other things—our mutual, rational policy and the direct connection between us. This connection prevents unnecessary and dangerous friction between the various forces, and I say wholeheartedly that this is a fundamental component of regional stability.39

A second set of friendship practices emphasized identity issues like shared cultural ties, languages, values, and memories. The most common was to use official statements as a way to strengthen the notion of shared identity and to define the “other.”40 This would create a basis for later policies. For instance, Putin often represented Jews, in general, as an example for the Russians. In 2020, he noted that Israel provided a model for the “preservation of national memory.”41 The next year, discussing a desire for unity between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, Putin surprisingly referenced Israel. “Jews come to Israel: black ones from Africa, Yiddish-speaking ones from Europe and other regions of the world,” he said. “They seem to be different from each other, yet the Jewish people value their unity.”42

The war in Syria therefore did not detract from their close cultural ties. Putin frequently mentioned Russian-speaking Israelis as a significant factor in the two countries’ bilateral relations. During a meeting with Netanyahu in 2016, he joked that although there are a million Russian speakers in Israel but only a few in his country who know Hebrew, “when this million return [from Israel], there will be many more [Hebrew speakers].”43

Israel took advantage of these shared linguistic ties when interacting with the Russian elite. Netanyahu consistently used Russian-speaking Israelis as a “connecting bridge” between the two states in his meetings with Putin. Lieberman, foreign minister through 2015 and defense minister from 2016–2018, was born in the USSR in 1958 and emigrated to Israel 20 years later. With his Russian counterparts, he spoke their language and referenced local anecdotes. He even avoided denouncing the 2014 annexation of Crimea, aligning with Russian domestic propaganda.44 Similarly, Netanyahu usually took the minister for Jerusalem affairs and heritage, Ze’ev Elkin, on his official visits to Russia. Born in Kharkiv (once part of the USSR, now Ukraine), Elkin served as interpreter during private conversations between the states’ leaders. Naftali Bennett, who replaced Netanyahu in the summer of 2021, did the same.45 Following a meeting in October 2021, Bennett stressed that Putin was “a true friend of the Jewish people.”46

Both Putin and Netanyahu strengthened the shared memory of Russian and Jewish suffering. In 2016, Russia decided to pay a pension to Jews who left the Soviet Union before 1992. It agreed two years later to give a special pension to Russian Jews who fought in the Second World War.47 Putin also paid a visit to Israel in 2020 for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum for the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the defense of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War. This coincided with the remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.48 For its part, Israel decided in July 2017 to celebrate May 9 as World War II Victory Day, making it the only country outside Russia that does not commemorate the defeat of Germany on May 8. A year later, Netanyahu was a guest of honor at the Russian victory parade. “We will never forget the great contribution of the Russian army and people in defeating Nazi Germany,” the Israeli prime minister declared during one of his visits. “I say this everywhere and at every opportunity, and rightly so. Mr. President, thank you very much.”49

A third component is the symbolic public gesture. Putin gained favor by recognizing painful moments for Israeli society. In 2016, Moscow sent to Israel a Magach tank that had been partially destroyed by the Syrians at the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in 1982. The Russian president noted that, in the absence of graves to visit, the families of the fallen tankmen could at least visit the vehicle, which now serves as a memorial. The Israeli press praised it as a sensitive act to commemorate the fallen.50 Three years later, Russia helped Israel obtain the remains of Zachary Baumel, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who went missing during the 1982 war in Lebanon. Putin commented that this was an effort to help Israeli friends, and Netanyahu officially expressed his appreciation.51

Putin’s special gestures were not limited to the past. In 2019, a young Israeli tourist, Naama Issachar, was arrested in Moscow on her way from India to Israel. Accused of carrying illegal drugs, she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.52 The story caused a tremendous public outcry in Israel, and a Free Naama campaign was immediately launched. Netanyahu requested that Putin pardon Issachar, and he did so in January 2020.53 Issachar’s liberation was highlighted in both the Russian and Israeli media as a sign of the special relations between the two countries, in general, and their leaders, in particular.54

With these normative practices, despite the two countries’ conflicting goals in the Syrian civil war, Russia and Israel continued their friendship balancing. This was based on their leaders’ shared realist worldviews, the societies’ shared identities and historical memories, and their seemingly close values. Both sides’ elites made efforts to sustain this relationship during the conflict while also making gestures that were important to each other’s citizens.

Structural Practices

Another aspect of friendship balancing, especially during conflicts, relates to the mechanisms states use to maintain their relationship. Russia and Israel developed two structural practices during the Syria conflict. The main one allowed Israel to continue its bombing campaign while limiting the damage to Russian assets and personnel, and the other was an agreement on the Golan Heights.

The practice of deconfliction

Deconfliction, which is generally used to prevent unintended engagement between military forces, is not necessarily reserved for friends.55 It can also be used to mitigate hostilities between rivals. For instance, the United States and Russia tried it in Syria with mixed results: In February 2018, fighting broke out in Deir ez-Zor between American special forces and Russian mercenaries, a clear failure to stay out of each other’s way.56 The Israeli-Russian deconfliction mechanism was designed to allow the Israelis to continue their bombing campaign—mainly against Iranian and Hezbollah personnel and facilities—while not threatening the effectiveness of Russian operations or units in Syria. The Russians received a confidential short notice of Israeli strikes close to their locations, and, in turn, did not interpret those strikes as provocative or threatening. This minimized the chances of clashes between the friends despite their conflicting strategies. The practice of deconfliction was institutionalized in 2015 and required constant coordination among civilian officials and military officers.

The first level of cooperation was managed by several ranks across government. On top of the frequent meetings between Israeli and Russian leaders were interactions and conversations between ministers, military chiefs of staff, and other high-level officials. Israel’s minister of defense, the Russian-speaking Lieberman, talked weekly with his counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.57 Such cooperation at the governmental level was accompanied by professional working groups on both sides and by regular cooperation between the Israeli National Security Council, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and the Security Council of Russia.58

The second level of cooperation was created in 2015 and concerned tactical, day-to-day coordination between the two sides’ military echelons. For example, the General Staff of the IDF were in constant communication with officers at the Russian-operated Khmeimim Air Base in Syria.59 For that reason, the Russian Air Force established a special unit to coordinate with their Israeli colleagues in 2015, even before operations began.60 The Russian military attaché in Israel also played a role. The Israelis manned all their tactical connections with native Russian speakers.61 Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, explicitly laid out the deconfliction process while touting their close relations during a joint 2021 press conference in Moscow. Lavrov explained that the practices “take into account each other’s legitimate interests in regional affairs.”62

The efficacy of this mechanism is revealed by examples of its success and failure. In mid-2018, Israel increased its strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. The Islamic Republic protested after dozens were killed and wounded. Despite their both being on Assad’s side, the Russians did not act to protect the Iranians.63 Following a meeting with Putin in Moscow, Netanyahu stated that he did not expect Russia to change its attitude toward Israel despite the Syria campaign, and that the two countries would continue cooperating.64

This cooperation came under pressure when, in September 2018, a Russian IL-20 military aircraft was accidentally shot down by Syrian forces aiming at four Israeli F-16s attacking ground targets near Latakia. The Russians officially blamed the deaths of the 16 crew members on Israel and its “irresponsible actions,” claiming they were “given less than a minute’s warning before the strikes, not enough time to get the plane out of the way.”65 Notably, the reactions of Russia’s Ministry of Defense and the media sources under its control were much tougher than the Kremlin’s official reaction and that of the mainstream media in Russia. Igor Konashenkov, Russia’s chief military spokesman, stressed that the Israeli pilots “shielded themselves [from the Syrian missiles] with the Russian jets,” deliberately putting the latter in the path of friendly fire.66

Despite the high level of tension, the deconfliction mechanism was activated immediately. Netanyahu and Putin had a conversation the day after the incident. The Israeli Air Force commander, Major General Amikam Norkin, visited Moscow a few days later to meet his counterparts from the Russian General Staff.67 While Russia reacted by providing Damascus with three S-300 anti-aircraft batteries, and despite some predictions in Israel that the incident would force it to reduce its campaign, the established practices did not change, and Russia did not interrupt or retaliate against the numerous Israeli strikes.68 Indeed, significant attacks by the Israeli Air Force were reported in the months following the incident.69 This apparent agreement held throughout the period. The Russians maintained de facto control in the air, and Israel avoided striking in the vicinity of Russia’s main deployments. It mainly attacked from Lebanon or the Golan Heights while occasionally launching other assaults far from Russian positions.70

The Golan Heights

The second structural practice established between the two states was to prevent Iranian and proxy forces aligned with Assad from deploying close to the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied during the Six-Day War of 1967. In the 1974 armistice between Israel and Syria, it was decided that the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) would be deployed in the no-man’s-land between the area under de facto Israeli control and the Syrian side. In 1981, Israel officially annexed the area under its control. However, the Syrian civil war and the collapse of pro-Assad military control in southwest Syria posed a dilemma.

Israel’s main interest has traditionally been to maintain the ceasefire border with the Syrians and deter any establishment of anti-Israel forces for as long as possible. However, the disintegration of the Syrian army in the early years of the civil war could have caused a threat if radical Islamists, such as the Nusra Front, Hezbollah, or Iranian militias, deployed their units along the de facto border. From 2013 to 2018, dozens of crossfire incidents were recorded.71 The seriousness of the threat to Israel was revealed when the UNDOF and its 1,200 soldiers failed to act as a buffer. Its positions were overrun by various militias, and in several incidents during this period, dozens of UN soldiers were held for ransom.72 As long as the threat to the border area was sporadic, Israel’s main strategy was to retaliate and supply arms and medical care to several relatively well-armed and well-supported moderate Syrian forces. The goal was to use these groups as a buffer against extremists.73 However, the extent of this aid did not influence the conflict dynamic in the Syrian Golan.

For the Israeli government, the presence of large Hezbollah and Iranian forces on its border was a casus belli. This was sparked in May 2018, when, shortly after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, forces from the Islamic Republic launched dozens of rockets into Israeli territory.74 Israel struck back with the extensive Operation House of Cards bombing campaign in Syria, hitting dozens of targets. At that time, Netanyahu was at the Russian Victory Day commemoration.

The increased tension and violence between its two friends posed Russia with a dilemma. Moreover, there was a threat that, if victorious, Hezbollah and Iranian forces would build up their deployments along the Golan, forcing the Israelis, like the Turks, to intervene. Such a military operation could have been detrimental to Russian–Israeli relations and to Moscow’s aims in Syria. The evolving situation in the summer of 2018 encouraged the creation of an equation that can be summed up as “an area free of Iranians/Iranian proxies = an area free of Israeli strikes,” especially in southwest Syria.75 Since at least that year, Russia has promised that it will keep a region of southwest Syria—the triangle formed by the Syrian, Jordanian, and Israeli borders—“clean” of Iranians and their proxies if Israel ceases its military strikes and support for rebels in that area.

In that way, Moscow reconnected the region to the regime in Damascus while maintaining its relative autonomy. Thus, instead of Iranian or pro-Iranian forces, or even the government in Damascus, in direct control, the area became nominally controlled by the Syrian army’s Fifth Assault Corps, created with Russia’s active involvement, and by the Syrian Eighth Brigade, reportedly under the Russians’ direct control.76 The Russians also deployed their own military police to observe the situation, and they reportedly tried to keep Iranian forces and proxies at a distance of 80 kilometers from the border with Israel, though this was only partially successful.77 Nonetheless, the initiative indicates the virtue of Russian-Israeli cooperation.

Through the careful creation of these structures, Russia and Israel have succeeded in preventing military frictions between their forces. The friendship between the countries endured despite the direct challenges. While Israel risked Iran’s and Hezbollah’s strengthening on its borders while trading strategic windows of opportunity to engage in the conflict against the Assad regime, Russia risked escalation with the Israelis and a loss of prestige. In the end, both sides concluded that political and military cooperation could build trust and strengthen friendship.

The war between Israel and Hamas that began on October 7, 2023, raised questions about whether relations between the two states will hold up. At the beginning of the conflict, Russian officials appeared hostile toward Israel in public speeches. However, Moscow did not provide any direct aid to anti-Israel actors like Iranian militias or Hezbollah along Israel’s borders. At the time of this writing, it is clear that the structural practices established in Syria continue. For example, in January and February 2024 alone, Israel launched 20 attacks on Syrian territory, killing 41 pro-Iranian personnel. There was no Russian retaliation.78


The literature on relations between states in the Middle East is dominated by realism. But in a world order with a multiplicity of types of agents, relational theory and concepts such as friendship can explain states’ behaviors in ways that cannot be understood solely by studying rational calculations or balances of power. As this article has shown, the concept of friendship balancing helps to explain how Israel could launch an extensive bombing campaign against Russia’s allies in Syria.79 Russian and Israeli leaders played on and strengthened the deep roots shared by the two societies. They understood that, despite their increasingly divergent interests in the Syrian civil war, they should cooperate. The parties used normative-value and structural practices. And they understood that in order to maintain their friendship, they would have to sacrifice some of their strategic goals.

Friendship is dynamic. Changes in global structures, alliances, and internal characteristics may transform states’ relationships. The Israel-Hamas war that began in October 2023 is another challenge to the two governments. Some predict an end to this complex balance due to rising antisemitism in Russian statements, closer cooperation between Moscow and Tehran, and Russia’s hosting of Islamist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad for talks on intra-Palestinian unification. This is accompanied by anti-Israel declarations by Putin and Russian support for UN resolutions to stop the war.80

A more careful analysis uncovers balancing actions. Moscow is not delivering offensive advanced weapons to Iran, nor is it training pro-Hamas groups.81 And its bid to reconcile Palestinian factions could help develop an alternative to Hamas’s de facto control of the Gaza Strip.82 As well, Russia has tried to curb antisemitic sentiments, denounced attacks against Jews, and worked to release Jewish hostages.83 It has also cited common ground, comparing its actions in Ukraine to Israel’s. “We need to be very careful about our common history with Israel and, above all, the history of the fight against Nazism,” cautioned Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. “This is the main thing that unites us historically.”84 Bilateral trade between the two countries continues, and Russia’s interests in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have led it to support their normalization with Israel.

Still, the Gaza and Ukraine wars could erode this friendship. Increasing material cooperation between Iran and Russia threatens the values and structures so carefully balanced by Netanyahu and Putin during the war in Syria. For now, it is not possible to predict the medium-term relations.

The study of friendship practices may broaden the academic focus of international politics not only on rivalries but also on how states mitigate their disputes to maintain positive relations, even when external circumstances put them on opposite sides. This requires not only theory but also long and deep historical analysis. Through this prism, perhaps we will be able to better understand the strong relations of the United States with Israel or re-evaluate the Iran-Hezbollah relationship as based on values that may have predated their shared goals and strategies. Moreover, we should study whether China’s increasing involvement in the Middle East is based solely on material interests or the kinds of practices that can forge and deepen friendship ties.


  • Chen Kertcher

    Dr. Kertcher is assistant professor of international relations and vice chair of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies-Political Science at Ariel University.

  • Dima Course

    Dr. Course is a postdoctoral fellow in Russian politics at Ariel University.

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