The opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem Monday did not cause the deadly Gaza protest, but it sure didn’t help. Gazans planned the “Great Return March” in December, days after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The protest began March 30, aiming to crescendo on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, the Palestinians’ “Nakba,” catastrophe.

The violence — totaling perhaps 100 dead — is a product of Gaza’s impossible conditions, Hamas’s rants and eternally stalled Israel-Palestine peace. Gaza and Jerusalem are huge problems, but Syria, where Israel and Iran poise for war, remains the bigger threat.

Only Russian President Putin may be able to keep Israel and Iran apart, because his good relations with both countries allow Russia to mediate. The U.S., which has close relations with Israel but none with Iran, cannot mediate. That’s what happens when you deal yourself out of the game, actually, two games, one with Iran, the other with the Palestinians.

The flareup in Israel-Iran fighting followed by just two days Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, suggesting that Trump’s decision emboldened both sides. The Israelis took it as permission to eliminate the Iranian threat in Syria, and the Iranians may figure they no longer have reason for restraint. (Palestinians may figure the same.)

Russia has an urgent interest in preventing an Israeli-Iranian war. The 2015 arrival of Russian forces in Syria saved a desperate Assad regime and put Russia back in the Middle East, where it has long wanted to be. Iran’s substantial presence in Syria — Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Quds Force, Hezbollah and other Shia fighters — saved Assad from ISIS in 2014. He will not willingly give them up.

But Putin wants Syria as a Russian dependency, not an Iranian dependency. He will therefore have to deliver a message like this: “You Iranians came here to defeat ISIS and have done so heroically. But, with ISIS beat, it is time for you to go home.” Iran, intent on getting a Shia corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, intends to stay in Syria.

Moscow-Jerusalem relations have oscillated over time. They were comrades fighting the Nazis, and Israel was born in 1948 with a considerable pro-Soviet leftist element. During the 1950s, however, Soviet-bloc anti-Semitism plus massive Soviet arms sales to Arab states turned Israel bitterly anti-Soviet. Israel first allied with France and finally with the U.S. Moscow backed Egypt and Syria in the 1967 and 1973 wars, leading to confrontation with the U.S.







Israeli-Syrian battles in October 1973 in the Golan Heights, held by Israel since 1967, were perhaps the fiercest the

Middle East has seen. Syria wants the Golan back, but the Assads, father and son, avoided another war. The Quds Force commander, the ferocious Gen. Qassem Suleimani, seems eager for war, but Iranians, broke and angry, may not be.

Netanyahu and Putin meet several times a year, just last week for the anniversary parade for victory in World War II. Netanyahu laid wreaths at two Moscow memorials. In 10 hours of meetings, Netanyahu persuaded Putin to not sell Iran advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems. Russian TV ran clips of an Israeli smart bomb demolishing an older Russian-supplied anti-aircraft position. Was this to tell Tehran something?

Netanyahu and Putin, two blunt personalities, seem to respect and understand each other. Their strange relationship could not be predicted from historical alignments. From 1955 until its demise in 1991, the Soviet Union sharply favored and armed the Arab states.

Unusual for Russian rulers, Putin is not a bit anti-Semitic. His Jewish playmates in postwar Leningrad and several Jewish oligarchs mark him as almost philo-Semitic. Netanyahu, however, stems from an anti-Russian political tradition going back to tsarist days. Stalin’s police tortured the founder of Netanyahu’s party, Menachem Begin, at the start of World War II.

For three years, Israel and Russia “deconflicted” from each other’s activities in Syria. How could Israel gather precise intelligence on Iranian/Hezbollah targets without the Russians either allowing it or providing it? Israel has launched more than 100 strikes against Iranian targets in Syria since 2012, originally against Iranian arms shipments for Hezbollah in Lebanon but later aiming for Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

U.S. Special Forces have also fought (successfully) in Syria, in the northeast against Russian mercenaries and against Iranian-led forces at Tanf on the Iraq-Damascus highway, the strategic last gap in Iran’s land bridge to the Mediterranean. Should we let Iran get it?

My hunch: We will keep some forces in Syria. Iran will try to avoid all-out war with both us and Israel. Putin will sternly tell Tehran to minimize its Syria activities. With nothing resolved, the situation will remain unstable. Worth watching: How close Iran/Hezbollah approaches the Golan Heights.

Bosnia was a three-sided war. Syria is a seven-sided war — Assad, Russia, Iran/Hezbollah, ISIS, Syrian Democratic Forces, Kurds, the U.S. and Israel. Does Washington have a strategy for this complexity? Does Putin?