Battle Between Putin and the Oligarchs Resonates Here

This Sunday, some 100 million Russians will head to the ballot box to elect a president. But the outcome is not in doubt Absurdly, a measure of the level of interest in this election may be discerned in, of all places, Israel.

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

This Sunday, some 100 million Russians will head to the ballot box to elect a president. But the outcome is not in doubt Absurdly, a measure of the level of interest in this election may be discerned in, of all places, Israel. One hundred thousand Russian citizens with the right to vote currently live here.

In the elections to the Duma, the Russian parliament, held about six months ago, only about 10,000 people came to the 11 polling stations set up by Russian Embassy - a meager turnout, though candidates from the election district (from Tula, a provincial city some 200 km. from Moscow, in whose local electoral jurisdiction Russians living in Israel find themselves) made their way here and had local activists campaigning.

One local activist was Valentin Feinberg, a member of the Haifa city council and a past deputy mayor for "Yisrael B'aliyah", who advised two candidates, arranged parlor meetings for them and organized their election information efforts.

"At the time, I felt it was my obligation, using the tools available to me, to influence Russia's policies toward Israel,' says Feinberg, explaining his involvement. Now there is no demand for Feinberg's services, even though he makes an effort to maintain contact with politicians in Russia.

There is no electioneering in Israel for the Russian elections, but this country is becoming a focal point of activity, in which the Russian-language media, the Jewish oligarchs, the Prime Minister's Office and the Kremlin are all playing roles.

As is often the case in Russian stories, this too is becoming a saga in which facts blend with old stigmas. For instance, the Jewish oligarchs - that handful of individuals who adeptly exploited the breakup of the Soviet Union to amass enormous fortunes. "Oligarch" is the Russian parallel of the American "tycoon," who is also often a Jew. While the words "Jewish tycoon" have the air of expensive cigars, fine whiskey and generous contributions to Jewish charities, in the Israeli mind-set an "oligarch" is a habitual criminal, perpetually suspect.

A recent rumor has it that not the Russian-sector advertising exec Alex Klevitzki, but Valdimir Putin - no less - is behind the purchase of "Vestnik," the local Russian-language weekly. What does Putin, who rules over the organs of the media in Russia with a high hand, care about a little weekly in Israel? It's obvious: this is but a first step in the campaign to gain domination of the Russian-language media, and through it, the immigrant community, and through them - the sky is the limit in this conspiracy theory.

As with every conspiracy theory, this one also has a factual basis - the negotiations now underway for the sale of 10 percent of Israel Plus, the Russian-language television channel (owned by businessman Lev Leviev) to the Russian channel ORT, which is in effect controlled by the Russian president.

Leviev is considered "a Putin man" and many of his business interests in Russia are dependent on the goodwill of the president. So far, the relationship has worked out well, and Leviev's rabbi in Moscow (Berel Lazar) is even considered "the personal rabbi of Putin the Christian."

Nevertheless, the influencing of a broadcast channel is hardly the sum total of Israel's part in the battle in which the Russian president and the Jewish oligarchs are now coming to political blows. This is also the subject of the massive investigative article that ran in Israel's Russian-language Novosti. The fact that it was published on the newspaper's front page was in itself quite irregular. With all due respect to the Russian-language media in Israel, it does not abound with investigative journalism, owing to a lack of resources and manpower. Nevertheless, the wide-ranging investigative piece that appeared in Novosti cites senior Russian sources and offers verbatim private conversations held between Sharon's office and Putin's office. A laudable journalistic achievement - for which no one is claiming credit. The article is signed by one "Shimon Alexander," a fabricated name. By the nature of the profession, journalists tend to be proud of their investigations and the scoops that fall into their laps; this time, the writer chose to hide behind a pseudonym.

The secrecy shrouding the publication of the investigative article in Israel, as well as the date of its publication so close to the elections in Russia, made it a focus of interest in both countries. The fact that it was published in a small newspaper is irrelevant. It has made its way to Internet sites, and from there to the rest of the world. Under the title, "The Middle East Arena in the Battle for Russia," the article printed facts complemented by insinuations that seem to smear the oligarchs and grant legitimacy to Putin. The central theme is that the Jewish oligarchs, such as Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Dubov and Leonid Nevzlin [the latter two are senior executives in the Russian oil giant Yukos, whose chairman, Michael Khodorkovski, is now in a Russian prison - L.G.], are taking over the political, academic and media worlds in Israel in order to influence Jerusalem-Moscow relations as well as domestic Russian politics.

The article also quotes an official Kremlin source who two months ago told an Israeli minister [apparently Avigdor Lieberman, the only one to be visiting Russia at the time - L.G.], that "so long as Israel serves as a base for Russian political migration, there is no reason to expect any progress in bilateral relations between the two countries." Lieberman said this week, "It's a shame that Russia-Israel relations are measured on the basis of the question of whether you are with the oligarchs or with Putin. Israel has interests of its own, and they are not identical to those of the oligarchs or even those of Putin."

The article also provides details on the means employed by the oligarchs to gain their dominant positions. It describes their objectives thus: "Control of Washington and European capitals; creating a negative image of the Kremlin by accusing it of institutional anti-Semitism, with the goal of discrediting Putin before the elections. In achieving the two objectives, Israel serves as an arena and as a primary player." How? At this point, the author introduces detailed documentation of the sophisticated machinations, beginning with the revelation of Jewish roots and real-estate acquisitions, and continuing with the penetration into positions of influence in the Prime Minister's Office. As expected, the Prime Minister's Office issued a strident denial of any involvement or influence.

David Schechter, an adviser to Minister Natan Sharansky, heard a vigorous denial by the Russian consul in Tel Aviv of any involvement in the preparation of the article by the Kremlin or the Russian Embassy in Israel. Yet even this denial does not stem the wave of rumors about the Kremlin's direct involvement in preparing the article. "No such thing happened," rebuffs Max Luria, editor of Novosti.

Putin's interest

The Russian-language newspaper Globus calls for taking a look at the other side of the coin, in other words, the interests of Putin and the ostensible enlistment of members of the Novosti staff in behalf of his interests. "Our line is that we do not judge the oligarchs," says the Russian editor of Globus, Leonid Lutzki. "If they are Jews and want to live here, Israel should turn down any request to extradite them."

Nevertheless, he suggests their sudden love for Israel is a farce - "a second home in the homeland." Ilan Kfir, the publisher and managing editor of Globus, attests that about ten days ago, he (clandestinely) witnessed a rare summit meeting of the great Jewish oligarchs - Berezovsky, Badri Patarkatsishvili from Georgia, Vladimir Dubov and Leonid Nevzlin, who has in the meantime received Israeli citizenship. The meeting was held at the David Intercontinental in Tel Aviv. According to a rumor that is difficult to confirm, the meeting was also attended by Roman Abramovich (the new owner of the Chelsea football club), who has until now been considered a "neutral oligarch."

Those in the know are expecting another meeting of this sort in the near future, even before the election. Rumor has it that Putin also knows about the meeting. The proximity of this parley with the election in Russia provokes suspicions that it has immediate political objectives. One of the oligarchs has also made a generous contribution to the election campaign of Irina Hakamada, who is running against Putin in the presidential race, and who in the latest polls is showing a scant 2 percent of voter support. Kfir relates that a representative of one of the oligarchs (some of them have permanent representatives in Israel, others have media advisers, public relations people and a surfeit of personal assistants and bodyguards), approached him after the article appeared in Globus, and politely commented: "You're causing damage, we want to work quietly." "Quietly" - this is the key word in this story. The oligarchs want to work quietly, and Putin is also interested in extending his influence over the Russian diaspora quietly. Except that this quiet has been violated due to the upcoming elections.

Israel, which has a rare talent for getting mixed up in every affair that does not directly affect it, is mired up to the neck in the battle of the titans. On top of that are the rising anxieties in the Russian-speaking community about processes that are throwing the community and the Russian government into a tangle of knots.

Not long ago, Putin set up a special unit for development of relations with the Russian diaspora. Due to its high number of "diasporees," Israel is a prime target. Besides that, dozens of "emigre" and "alumni" organizations operate in Israel, maintaining the connection to the old homeland. The Russian television channels here garner a 72 percent viewing share within the community.

"All of this would be just fine if I did not discern in the Russian regime a desire to enlist this proclivity for language and culture, in order to affect the internal political process," says a public figure in the Russian arena. "Right now, a problematic situation is evolving, in which a colony of Russian speakers exists in Israel who have not yet disconnected from there and have not yet connected to here. This is a new situation. When Israel becomes an arena for activity of the oligarchs, who are the strong political and economic opposition to Putin, it has a problem."

The Shin Bet presumably feels the same way. MK Roman Bronfman of Meretz was recently asked to address a Shin Bet forum and outline the picture as he sees it. In response, Bronfman adopts this diplomatic wording: "Indeed, there is cultural/consumer autonomy in Israel that can serve as a hothouse for Russian interests outside the borders of Russia.

"At the same time, there are attempts by the Kremlin to strengthen the rule of the president and to reinforce his influence outside the boundaries of Russia, and in those terms Israel is a first-rank object in the overall strategic interest, not only because of the size of the community, but also because so many members of it have entered key positions in the political and economic establishment. This complex situation has to be dealt with cautiously and attentively," says Bronfman. With "caution" not always being Israel's strong suit, it has become a supporting player in an election that seemingly has nothing to do with it.

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