It has been reported that the United States has ruled out giving Israel’s steel industry an exemption to the global 25% import tariffs that the Trump administration has thus far only granted to Brazil, South Korea, Argentina and Australia. While Israel’s steel industry is relatively small, this means that losing a substantial share of the US market owing to tariffs means that the fledgling industry could be priced out of existence.
While Donald Trump’s disdain for the European Union is well documented, his overwhelmingly positive relations with the current leadership in Tel Aviv dates back to an era long before Trump decided to stand in any political election. Therefore, the apparent decision to refuse Tel Aviv’s steel industry an exemption to otherwise universal tariffs has sent profound shortwaves throughout the Israeli business community that had come to rely on the US as its most valued partner.
Former Israeli Finance Minister and the current head of the Manufacturers Association of Israel, Dan Catarivas called the imposition of US tariffs a “deathblow” to the local steel industry before saying,
“We are disappointed that despite Israel’s special status as a true friend of the US and the free trade agreement [between the countries], Israel has not been excluded from the imposition of tariffs like Australia”.
The language Catarivas used is very telling of how Israel feels particularly snubbed by its traditionally most favoured trading partner. But it seems that when it comes to protectionism, even a country as close to the United States as Israel garners no special favours in areas related to trade and non-military orientated commerce.
Reports concerning US tariffs on Israeli steel come less than twenty-four hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow to discuss matters concerning the ongoing conflict in Syria. Now though, with prominent Israelis expressing their displeasure and shock at Donald Trump’s refusal to prioritise an exemption in respect of tariffs, trading issues will certainly be on the table as well.
Furthermore, as a net energy importer, Israel like the rest of the world is now increasingly dependant on Russia’s good will owing to the emergent OPEC+ formula. Because of Russia’s historic partnership with Saudi Arabia in the OPEC+ format, now the Russian superpower has the final say when it comes to global production levels of oil and hence the prince of a barrel of Brent Crude, as much if not more so than Saudi Arabia.
These events help to give a new context to Vladimir Putin’s longstanding goal to develop positive relations with Israel in spite of Moscow and Tel Aviv being largely antagonistic since the late 1950s after an initial period of intensely warm relations during the era of Stalin.
In this sense, the decades of effort that Putin has laboured at to create a meaningful partnership with Tel Aviv all while maintaining historically excellent ties with Syria and a more recent partnership with Iran, has paid off and looks to do so ever more in the future.
While Tel Aviv will continue to be able to rely on US support for unilateral actions taken against neighbouring Arab states including occupied Palestine, when it comes to making the compromises that even a well-known hawk like Netanyahu must occasionally concede, it is not Washington but Moscow that he is calling to work on tangible efforts to reach compromise solutions to regional issues. This has expressed itself most recently in Russo-Israeli attempts to secure an Iranian and Hezbollah withdrawal from Syria – something both sides now want albeit for different reasons. While the US is happy to encourage Israel to commence ever more attacks on its neighbours, even when these attacks are against the logical interests of Israeli security, Russia is there to provide all parties to conflicts in the turbulent region with a dose of realism combined with compromise problem solving methods to de-escalate mutually detrimental tensions. In this sense, all major Middle East players must now rely on Russia if they want to get anything done without going to war.
Likewise when it comes to bilateral trade, investment agreements and discussions regarding oil production, Russia is also the de-facto go-too nation across the board throughout the Middle East. While for decades the US used Israel as a means to sow discord throughout the wider Arab world, this strategy of using Israel to frustrate Russia’s partnerships with Syria and Iran has spectacularly backfired. Instead of Tel Aviv becoming a linchpin of sowing discord against Russia, Tel Aviv has been reduced to just another partner of Russia in the same way that in spite of a longer history of friendship, Syria too is just another partner of Russia in a region where Russia has many friends but no real enemies. In other words, by respecting the positions of every Middle Eastern nation, irrespective of how entrenched and at times difficult these positions are – Russia can not be accused of playing favourites nor of provoking potential enemies.
Throughout all of this, Russia has also maintained its historic stances at the UN in favour of Palestine and there’s little Israel can do about it in the same way that Israel could not help it when Barack Obama, in his final days in office, supported a resolution adopting the Palestinian position on Israeli so-called settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
Russia has successfully removed ideological considerations from its relationships in the Middle East and in so doing, has made every Middle Eastern nation “just another country” with its unique set of issues and areas of agreement. Russia is helping to de-esclate long term rivalries by providing an overarching sense of balance that a superpower ought to provide in such a situation.
While the US continues to pursue most of its partnerships in the Middle East with a zero-sum mentality that is conveyed through ideological rhetoric, it seems that in the Trump era, a line is drawn when commerce is involved and here, protectionism triumphs over zero-sum loyalties.
Because of this, Israel is now looking with concern at an increasingly closed US market while in Russia, Tel Aviv sees a large and growing market that is far more open to free trade than the United States is in the age of Trump. Therefore, without causing any geopolitical conflicts and without engaging in outdated ideological contortions, Vladimir Putin’s policy towards Tel Aviv, like his policies toward Ankara, Cairo, Tehran, Riyadh, Doha and Baghdad have all served to make Russia an invaluable asset to all regional powers while the US remains a liability to some, a threat to others and a disappointment even to Israel.