LVIV, Ukraine – Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently reminisced about his meetings with the Russian president over a decade ago. One of Olmert’s main objectives was to try to talk Vladimir Putin out of supplying Iran with advanced antiaircraft missiles.
“Putin would always tell me that ‘my best friends live in Israel; a high school teacher of mine lives in Israel and I bought her an apartment in Tel Aviv. When I was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg I’d fly to Tel Aviv and go with friends down to Eilat where I’d lie on the beach and watch your beautiful Israeli babes,’” Olmert told podcaster Ariel Klachkin.
“Putin would say, ‘I’m not Israel’s enemy and I’ll never help anyone harm Israel’s security. The communists were stupid. They were one-sided against Israel. I’m not. But make no mistake, I’m the president of Russia, and Russia is a world power. I’ll never give up any position of influence that Russia has.”
Olmert’s memories of his meetings with Putin tally with what others have heard from him over the years. The Russian dictator has a different approach to Israel and the Jews than the Soviet leaders who preceded him in the Kremlin. A prominent Russian-Jewish leader says that “in Putin’s analysis of the failures that caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the fact that they treated the Jews and Israel as their enemy is one of them. He doesn’t want to repeat that mistake.”
Putin’s apology Thursday in a phone call to Naftali Bennett for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks that “Hitler also had Jewish blood” should be seen in that light. Putin doesn’t want Israel to abandon its position of near neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine war. Moscow is aware that Israel may be on the verge of taking a clearer stance on Ukraine’s side, including supplying it with “defensive” systems, and he’s eager to prevent that from happening.
It’s a fear that’s partly irrational. Israel isn’t about to supply Ukraine with a game-changing weapon; even if it wanted to, it doesn’t have those capabilities to give.
Putin’s view of what Israel can do for Ukraine is exaggerated (and some Ukrainians seem to have similar expectations). His belief in Israel’s almost mythical powers is an evolution of the antisemitic belief in Jewish power. Putin’s view isn’t so different from that of the Russian authors of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but unlike those Russian antisemites of old, he believes in trying to make the Jewish state his ally, rather than repressing the Jews.
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But while Israel could probably help the Ukrainians with various radar warning systems, anti-tank missiles and intelligence sharing, this wouldn’t make much of a change considering the support they’re receiving from the United States and Western Europe.
Another source of concern for Putin that’s probably greatly exaggerated is that Israel is among countries he has courted over the years that haven’t yet committed to either side in the war. He’s worried about a knock-on effect if Israel actually does move toward Ukraine.
But it’s not as if there would be a major diplomatic shift if Israel changed its position. Putin has lost the Western nations anyway. The currently neutral countries including Israel that are non-Western allies of the United States – like India, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – have various reasons for sitting on the fence. If Israel gets off the fence, it won’t change the others’ considerations, though this may have some residual effect.
The third reason for Putin apologizing is directly connected to the offense in question. The “neo-Nazis in Ukraine” issue is indeed important to Russia. It’s not just self-serving propaganda for justifying an unjustifiable war but a deeply held belief of many Russians that those who oppose Russia’s national aspirations are indeed tainted by Nazism. Putin certainly believes this, and it’s important for him that Israel, widely regarded as a moral heir of the Holocaust’s victims, doesn’t dispute his propaganda too strenuously.
Close observers of Russian television have noticed an interesting nuance in the last couple of days: Some pundits have spoken of a Nazism that doesn’t have to be antisemitic but can be anti-Slavic or anti-Russian. In other words, the message from the Kremlin is to try to bypass the question of how a Jewish Ukrainian president can be a Nazi by saying that not all types of Nazism are antisemitic.
Putin obviously wants to downplay any criticism from Israel or Jewish organizations, but it’s probably too late. He waited four days after the Lavrov interview to apologize, and in the meantime the Russian Foreign Ministry piled on with accusations that Israel “supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv” and that “Israeli mercenaries” are serving in the Azov Battalion.
Lavrov is notoriously rude and aggressive, but in one sense he’s a true diplomat – he explains his leader’s policies to the world; he doesn’t make policy.
Saying that Hitler had Jewish blood and that Jews can be the worst antisemites was perfectly in line with Russian propaganda, both going back to the Soviet era and in the current conflict. As long as Russia bases its war effort on claims that a country led by a Jewish president and with many senior officials of Jewish origin is basically a “neo-Nazi junta,” it will remain mired in the kind of antisemitic rhetoric used by Lavrov.
Bennett, who has been reluctant from the start of the war to take a stand, may accept Putin’s apology, but this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this issue.