By Dan Williams and Denis Dyomkin
JERUSALEM/MOSCOW (Reuters) - With the Obama administration in its final months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a more frequent and feted visitor to Moscow than Washington, his eye on shifting big-power influence in the Middle East.
No one expects Netanyahu, who was hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday for the third time in the last year, to break up Israel's bedrock alliance with the United States. But he is mindful of Putin's sway in the Syrian civil war and other Middle East crises as the U.S. footprint in the region wanes.
"Netanyahu's not defecting, but what we see here is a bid to maneuver independently to promote Israel's interests," said Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia now with Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.
With Russian forces fighting alongside Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, Putin is the closest thing to a guarantor that Israel's three most potent enemies will not attack it from the north.
He is also the first port of call for Netanyahu's argument that Assad's loss of central control vindicates Israel's de facto annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981, a move never recognized internationally. Israel took the area in a 1967 war.
Netanyahu can offer Putin reciprocal Israeli restraint in Syria, where Russia maintains a strategic Mediterranean base, and a chance to play a greater role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that has long been dominated by the United States.
With the Obama administration and France hinting they might back a future U.N. Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, Netanyahu also has an interest in sounding out the views of veto-wielding Russia.
Moscow's guest-list suggests mediation may be under way.
When Netanyahu last came, in April, it was three days after a visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On Wednesday, when Netanyahu departs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to host Palestinian counterpart Riyad al-Maliki.
Yaakov Amidror, one of Netanyahu's former national security advisers, played down the scope of Israeli-Russian relations. He said they focused on preventing the sides accidentally trading fire over Syria and were underpinned by Netanyahu's personal rapport with Putin - hence their meetings every few months.
By contrast, while Netanyahu and Obama have feuded on Iran and the Palestinians and are wrangling over a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) for future U.S. defense aid to Israel, their countries' partnership ticks over thanks to a network of military, diplomatic and parliamentary channels, Amidror said.
"In Syria, there is liable to be a clash tomorrow morning that neither we nor the Russians want," said Amidror, now with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and the U.S. think-tank JINSA, alluding to the risk of a friendly-fire incident.
"It's not like the MOU, which we can spend months discussing with the Americans and be assured a resolution will be found."
Russia has been closed-lipped about any wider statecraft initiatives it may have in store for Israel. The two countries "each express their positions in a pretty constructive manner, and all of this contributes to this rather frequent and intensive communication", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
"But of course, there cannot be any talk of the intensity of these contacts reflecting any kind of rivalry with anyone," he added, alluding to Washington, where Netanyahu was last hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in November. A trip expected in March was canceled given the difficult MOU talks.
That's different from the dignified optics Netanyahu can be assured of in Russia. This time, he will leave with state gifts likely to buoy Israeli public opinion: an Israeli army tank captured by Syrian forces during battles in Lebanon in 1982 and recovered by Russia, and Moscow's agreement to pay pensions to tens of thousands of Russian immigrants to Israel.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)