As the city of Netanya prepared for his arrival, the entire upper echelons of Israel's government were summoned to greet Russian President Vladimir Putin with the greatest possible splendor and warmth. All were waiting for Putin to come and dedicate the Red Army Monument, a tribute to the Russian soldiers who fell in battle against the Nazis.
Putin was 90 minutes late, which was not exceptional; he was also late once for a meeting with the queen of England. The three planes bringing the rest of his official delegation, which numbered some 350 people, arrived on time. The Israel Defense Forces orchestra, meanwhile, was practicing a surprisingly accurate rendition of the Russian national anthem.
Netanya municipal workers scurried about, putting the finishing touches on everything. Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman still ended up sitting through the ceremony on a chair torn in several places.
Minutes before the ceremony began, the two foreign ministers entered one after another from the side. Lieberman looked satisfied. That was hardly surprising; after all, his ministry had borne the bulk of the responsibility for the Russian president's visit, and the foreign minister could finally put behind him the embarrassment of 17 months ago, when a strike by workers in his ministry forced former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to cancel his visit here.
Following Lieberman was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, wearing a sour face. That's no surprise, either; Putin chose to make Israel his first stop on his Middle East visit over Lavrov's vehement objections.
"Filthy Arabist," mumbled a member of the Russian-Israeli press when Lavrov entered.
During his address, President Shimon Peres, as expected, praised the Russian people and the Red Army for their role in saving the Jewish people from obliteration by the Nazis. He even tried a few sentences in Russian, which was amusing and seemed to please Putin. Peres, naturally, managed to squeeze mentions of Iran and Syria into his short speech.
Putin, a deft president in his third term, expressed his fondness for the Jewish people and gratitude for the role Jewish soldiers played in defeating the Nazis. But he chose to save the hot diplomatic topics for lunch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Not everyone was pleased with Putin's visit, not just because of his support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, but because of his strong-arm tactics against the Russian opposition. Unlike the Israeli media, the Russian websites made headlines out of a demonstration by some 50 protesters who tried unsuccessfully to interfere with the ceremony and block the road in front of Putin's entourage.
The afternoon was an entirely different story, with pageantry replaced by pragmatic discussions between Putin, Netanyahu, Lieberman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and national security adviser Yaakov Amidror. It was soon leaked that that it had been one of the most positive, constructive Israeli conversations ever held with Russia's leader.
Perhaps he was tired, but Putin looked rather apathetic during the dinner later at the President's Residence. While he smiled at the greeting in Russian delivered by a little girl, it was clear that what he had come to hear in Jerusalem he had already heard earlier, and the dinner was merely a protocol obligation.
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