RD Interview: Tel Aviv University professor Itai Sened shares his vision for the Middle East, discusses global security challenges for 2016 and underscores the differences in the foreign policy approaches of the U.S. and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu on Sept. 21, 2016. Photo: Kremlin

The annual Gaidar Forum 2016 kicked off on Jan. 13 in Moscow. Traditionally hosted by the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy and the Yegor Gaidar Foundation, this year the topic of the conference was “Russia and the World: Looking To the Future.” As in prior years, the forum gathered together prominent scholars, experts and practitioners, making the event an outstanding platform for insightful discussions.

On the sidelines of the Gaidar Forum 2016, Russia Direct sat down with Itai Sened, the head of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University, and talked about Russian and U.S. Middle East policies, their implications for Israel and regional security as well as about major challenges to the world and the region in 2016.

Russia Direct: How does Israel view Russia’s Middle East policy?

Itai Sened: So, first of all, Israel is mostly concerned with its own security issues and for many years, it has seen Russia as part of what can actually help. Israel has never seen Russia as an enemy even in the years when the relations between the two were not so good. You have to remember that 25 percent of the Israeli Jewish population is Russian and they have special affinities with Russia, very strong connections; Israel also has a very strong political movement that is very Russian in its content and understanding of the world. And now Israel even sees Russia as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. The main problem in the Middle East right now is that you can trust or rely on nobody.

So, the fact that Israel can go to the current Russian administration and say: Look, this is what we are going to do, this is what you are going to do, here is how we need to coordinate – this is a rarity in our days in the Middle East because you cannot really trust anybody.

So, Russia is seen as a trustworthy player: we may agree or disagree with Russia but it is a stable player.

RD: Does Israel see eye-to-eye with Russia’s approach to Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS)?

I.S.: Yes and no. Israel has always been careful not to take sides with regard to Syria. Israel has very strong reservations when it comes to Hezbollah, which is a close ally of the Assad regime and Iran, and of course it has very big issues with the Iranians. So, almost half of this whole arena (the Levant) is very much of concern to Israel.

So, Iran and Hezbollah are a concern for Israel, while Assad is not a concern for Israel. Russian weapons that are ending up in the hands of Hezbollah and Iran are a big issue but amongst the public and among most leaders and policy makers, they believe that they can manage the situation with Russia. So, again, it is the same idea – we can work with the Russians because they understand us, we understand them: we do not agree with them, we don’t like the weapons they send, but when weapons should not arrive, we know how to tell them that we cannot allow that and how to better deal with it.

RD: Ok. On the other hand, there is U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It has been changing for quite some time in the last years. How do you view it currently?

I.S.: It is very much so [in the process of change]. The U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been suffering for a long time from very profound inconsistencies. It is built on a neoliberal approach to international relations, which does not really exist. Neo-liberal means one thing and that is no interventions, so how can you put intervention and no intervention under the same ideological umbrella? It does not work. So, they have a very serious issue with inconsistency.

But Israel has traditionally seen the U.S. as its main ally. However, the public and many decision makers are very frustrated with the internal inconsistencies of the American policy in the Middle East. And again – an advantage for the Russians – they don’t necessarily like what the Russians do, but they understand it. So, to wrap-up, there is a profound and very straightforward consistency in the Russian Middle East policy and exactly the opposite in the U.S.

Read Russia Direct report: "Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East"

Despite the U.S. being a major ally of Israel since the 1960s, right now there is a lot of frustration, mainly with the current administration regarding the inconsistencies of its policies.

RD: In these circumstances can Israel play a cementing role trying to bring Russia and the U.S. closer to each other in their Middle East policies?

I.S.: They can, but they do not always do so.  One very interesting figure to follow is of course Avegdor Liberman, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel. As a Minister, he has been very effective in creating behind-the-scenes meetings and bridges. He is no longer a Minister and Israel at the moment does not have a Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Currently, relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin are still pretty good; between Netanyahu and Obama, they are not very good. Without Liberman those bridges that were always behind-the-scenes no longer exist in my opinion. But they can exist. And by the way, during the Crimea crisis in 2014 Liberman was deeply involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations and meetings.

RD: With the rise of the ISIS threat and increased instability in the region, the Israeli-Palestinian issue seems to be sidelined. How do you see this development? What are the prospects for its settlement?

I.S.: Well, interestingly enough, ISIS is regarded as a major threat mainly for the Europeans and mainly because of the refugee crisis. For Israel, for example, ISIS is not interesting. They do not really threaten Israel, there are some terrorist activities that are remotely related to ISIS. For Israel, ISIS is not an issue. Actually it is a kind of blessing in disguise: they preoccupied everybody so much that nobody is dealing with the Palestinian issue, Hezbollah has no time for Israel as it has to deal with ISIS, so for Israel ISIS is a blessing in disguise.

Also read: "How ISIS became a threat to Middle East stability"

RD: What global challenges should the world expect in 2016?

I.S.: Currently, I believe that the main concern is and should be the issue of refugees – there are way too many people floating in this region between the Middle East and Europe (previously it was only Western Europe, now it is also Eastern Europe). We estimate about five million people - and it is a very conservative estimate - are trying to move from one place to another – this is a very powerful destabilizing force and nobody knows what to do about it. Just take recent events in Cologne, in Germany. Has anybody ever heard about anything like that before? When there is so much tension, so many people, homeless and on the move – that is the main concern and that is the biggest threat.

They come from the Middle East out of fear of both Assad and ISIS, but currently, mostly ISIS. What to do with them here we don’t know. So, if you destroy ISIS – will that solve the problem? The answer is no. The Middle East will remain very unstable. Right now, it is hyper-tense between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Therefore, there is a very threatening call of instability in the Middle East. Right now it is probably around ISIS, but ISIS is not a reason - it is just one of the symptoms.

RD: What major issues should we look for in 2016?

I.S.: Out of three main issues that I see as most prominent, the most important is probably Iran. And this is where Russia has to play a very important role. Russia is Iran’s main ally right now and it has an interest and it should be an adult in the room. Moscow should work with Iran and move it in a somewhat reasonable direction. There are forces within Iran that are going in this direction but we need an adult in the room and Russia can probably play that role. So, this is issue number one.

Issue number two is probably Syria. What will happen: will it explode or implode? It will be something to look for as it can make a big difference.

I think that ISIS is a greatly overestimated problem – it is a  much smaller issue than we make out of it. I am not quite sure why, maybe because terrorism is frightening. So there is a big successful terrorist group and it is frightening – so people are paying attention. But this is not a threat and if I have to rank it, it is number three.

RD: In your opinion, which nation is the most stable force in the region?

I.S.: Israel is the only stable government in the region. Egypt is now doing much better than previously, so maybe Egypt too, but Egypt is unsuccessful in eradicating ISIS from the Sinai desert. So, Israel is definitely is the most stable force in the region.

Israel was depending on the U.S. as the main stabilizing force in the Middle East. And the U.S. rolled back from this position: they cannot serve in this role anymore - maybe they can, but they do not want to and they do not serve like they want to.

Historically it has always been the case – we have waves like that: Russia comes in and fills the void and this is exactly what is happening now.

Recommended: "The US and Russia in Syria: From incidental to deliberate cooperation?"

Being such a small country that is very sensitive to instability, Israel immediately seizes the opportunity, arranges this kind of management system to work through with a partner. And again – for Israel it is very easy to work with Russians. They have a lot of commonalities in terms of how to manage crises, how to deal with issues. Both countries have a deep understanding, a nuanced understanding of the region, so you do not have to spend much time explaining yourself. So, definitely, paradoxically the U.S. is somewhat moving out and the Russians somewhat moving in. And Israel is quite good in adjusting itself to the new situation, definitely working closer with Russians now than with the Americans.

RD: And the last question. Recently China has started to be more active in the Middle East, improving or expanding their relations with countries of the region, including Israel. So, how does Israel see China’s role and growing involvement in the Middle East?

I.S.: In this respect, Israel is no different than the rest of the world.China has a very confused foreign policy and no one can make much sense of it and everybody is struggling to understand what the Chinese are doing. And Israel is as confused as everybody else. China has a huge economic potential that is now in question. Israel has been trying to tie itself to the economic growth in China, which currently has become a somewhat risky strategy because we don’t know what will happen in China. So any analyst in the stock market will tell you: reduce your dependency on China right now. So, Israel has to do the same, but it has not, like the rest of the world. Everybody continues to bet that China will somehow figure it out. It is true that the economic engagement will help it to do so also in the international arena, but it depends on a lot of assumptions that may or may not work.

One final note that is very interesting and one that is kind of flying under the radar is the prospect of new relations with India. India is an easier player for Israel and an easier player to play with in general. As for Israel, India is an obvious ally to it because they have a lot of similar issues: 20 percent of Muslims, concerns about Pakistan and Iran. So they have similar threats and are dealing with similar issues, and on top of that, India is simply an important player.