Analysis

Without Trump and Putin, Netanyahu Makes Do With Ukraine Campaign Stop

Ukraine and India aren’t the United States and Russia – and in visiting Kiev, Netanyahu is walking a diplomatic mine field

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Kiev, August 19, 2019.
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

Around two weeks before the April 9 election, Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington, where President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. About a week later, it was on to Moscow, where Netanyahu received from President Vladimir Putin the last effects of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, 37 years after the sergeant had gone missing in Lebanon. The well-timed trips were testament to the prime minister’s statesman status, which he has been at pains to emphasize in the run-up to next month’s do-over election as well.

As a reminder, since last month, Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv has been bedecked with massive banners showing Netanyahu shaking hands with Trump and Putin. But he won’t be meeting with them this time. Instead he’s in Ukraine on Monday, and in two weeks he’ll be flying to India for a meeting with the third leader on a Likud banner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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India is of course an up-and-coming world power with the second-largest population in the world, but still, Ukraine and India aren’t the United States and Russia. Netanyahu’s team tried to organize repeat meetings with Trump and Putin, but this time it seems there was less openness in Washington and Moscow. Trump still supports Netanyahu but he’s disappointed in him for not wrapping up a victory in April, hence the cooling-down of his efforts to get the Israeli reelected.

Neither does Putin want to serve as an extra in this campaign, in which Israel’s Russian-speaking community is a key battleground between Netanyahu and his nemesis, Moldova-born Avigdor Lieberman. The prime minister’s staff checked to see if the work in Jerusalem on a planned monument for the siege of Leningrad could be brought forward so Putin could be invited over for its commemoration on time, but this proved impossible. Russia’s leader may well attend the ceremony next year, but Netanyahu may not be prime minister.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia in 2016.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Ukrainian pensions

Netanyahu has to make do with what one senior Indian diplomat has called “a photo-opportunity” with Modi and his first meeting with newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

>> Read more: For these young Israelis, Netanyahu’s ties with Putin are not a vote winner ■ The war for Israel’s Russian vote shifts into high gear – and Lieberman is still winning ■ The Israeli left has given up on this key demographic. Here's why that's a mistake

In the absence of a meeting with Putin, flying to Kiev is an intriguing alternative, especially considering that for the past decade, Netanyahu has sought to underplay Israel’s strong relationship with Ukraine, for fear of angering Putin. Netanyahu has never taken the trouble of making the short two-hour flight to Kiev before. While the West was unanimous in condemning Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Israel resolutely remained on the fence. Three months ago when Zelensky was sworn in as president, it didn’t even send a minister to the ceremony, sufficing with the ambassador.

Now Netanyahu has gone himself for one reason only. His advisers have suddenly realized that not all Russian-speakers in Israel are Russian citizens and many of them are not fans of Putin. In the heated battle with Lieberman for their votes, anything now goes.

One of the main concerns of these voters, especially the older ones, is their pensions from the countries where they lived and worked for most of their lives. For many of them, that’s Ukraine. Netanyahu is hoping to get some kind of statement from Zelensky on the pension issue, though even if such a statement is made, it will be of doubtful value since the newly-elected parliament, along with a government, has yet to be sworn in.

The trip to Ukraine is a diplomatic mine field, as Netanyahu’s hosts will try to get him to commemorate the Holodomor, the man-made famine in the early 1930s in which millions of Ukrainians died and for which many Ukrainians blame the Soviet leadership. This is yet another source of tension with Moscow where Netanyahu could find himself sucked in.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Kiev, August 19, 2019. Valentyn Ogirenko
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

Both Israel and Ukraine are now being led by temporary governments. Given the sensitivity of the relations and the possible implications on ties with Russia, this is probably the worst possible timing for a visit. Nothing of substance can be achieved and there is much potential damage from a hastily organized visit. But election considerations trump everything else. The inexperienced and rather isolated Zelensky is happy to provide the backdrop; he doesn’t get that many international visitors.

Storming the cockpit

Netanyahu needs his photo-ops and this may be one of Sara Netanyahu’s last chances to be treated like royalty. Even before their plane had landed in Kiev, there were incidents including an unexplained four-hour delay in taking off. Then, according to Israel’s Channel 12, an angry Sara tried to storm the cockpit after she didn’t hear the pilot greeting her in his preflight announcement. But this is just grist in the mill for these trips. The question is how much more we can expect.

India, in the wake of Modi’s controversial decision to strip Kashmir of its autonomous status, is hungry for international affirmation. Hosting Netanyahu on the eve of an election is a useful opportunity. It will be a meeting between two nationalist leaders who aren’t exactly at the height of their popularity.

Are these the last travels of Netanyahu as prime minister? If the September 17 election produces another deadlock, it will become even more difficult for him to be taken as a bona fide leader while so obviously on borrowed time. He still hopes to make the UN General Assembly a week after the election. If he unexpectedly wins, and the right-wing-religious bloc achieves a majority without the seats of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu can arrive in New York triumphantly.

Who knows, Trump may even deign to meet him there. But if he fails, he’ll probably be too busy trying to somehow cobble a coalition together against the odds – and preparing with his lawyers for his pre-indictment hearings – to leave the country.