The announcement of Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden summit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday, five days before the Israeli elections, can mean one of two things: Either there is an acute crisis concerning Israel’s involvement in Syria, or Netanyahu is using the Russian president as a campaign prop, with what can only be his active collaboration. Putin is pulling for Netanyahu as he did for Donald Trump, but this time it’s out in the open.
Putin’s reasons for backing Netanyahu are clear: As a general rule, he has buttressed nationalistic, ethnocentric, anti-European Union politicians wherever he could find them. And in exchange for his grudging acquiescence to Israeli bombing raids against Iranian targets in Syria, Netanyahu has legitimized Russia’s presence in Syria and quietly agreed to the pullout of U.S. troops. A photo-op in Moscow is a small price for Putin to pay for such benefits.
Netanyahu, for his part, will be using his meeting with Putin, like his powwow with Trump last week, to broadcast his experience, worldliness and knack for making friends and influencing authoritarians. If the novice Benny Gantz is elected, the voter is meant to conclude, Netanyahu’s delicate balancing act will collapse, Trump and Putin will gang up on Israel together and Iran will be armed to the teeth on Israel’s northern border. Or something to that effect.
It is unlikely, however, that Netanyahu would waste some of his last precious hours before Election Day to drive home a point he’s already made several times over. Rather, Netanyahu is making a last minute foray into Israel’s once indulged but recently neglected Former Soviet Union (FSU) electorate, the largest single voting bloc among the country’s Jewish voters.
According to most estimates, the nearly million-strong population of FSU immigrants and their Israeli-born children and grandchildren are worth about 18 Knesset seats, more than enough to decide a tight race. Close to twenty years after the last big wave of arrivals in Israel, the first generation, hitherto the solid base of Avigdor Lieberman’s sectorial Yisrael Beitenu party, is giving way to second and third generations, which feel Israeli and vote like them too, albeit with a clear right-wing tilt.
Likud has been making steady inroads among Russians and was said before the elections to be running neck and neck with Lieberman, with each picking up about a third of the overall Russian vote. A summit with Putin wouldn’t necessarily impress all of the Russian electorate, but the Moscow strongman is nonetheless widely admired among voters who, it stands to reason, lean toward strong nationalist figures such as Netanyahu and Lieberman.
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Courting them, however, entails a serious risk for Netanyahu: Lieberman is hovering just above or just below the 3.25% threshold in the polls and can’t afford to lose any more support. If Putin-loving Russian voters now move to Likud, Lieberman could find himself outside the Knesset and Netanyahu could find himself without enough allies to form a coalition.
But Lieberman isn’t Netanyahu’s only concern. Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash party is making a play for the Russian vote on the prime minister’s right, along with the presumed Cinderella of the 2019 elections, Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin, whose wacky mix of radical libertarianism and hyper-nationalism seems to have hit a Russian chord.
More critically, perhaps, is the historical fact that usually right-leaning Russian have a weakness for famous generals, such as Yitzhak Rabin, who would not have been elected in 1992 without Russian support, and Ehud Barak, whose mix of military renown, intellectual veneer and love of playing piano attracted sizeable Russian support in 1999. Gantz lacks the aura and charisma of both his predecessors, but he is a former commander of the army and can build on the small but solid base that already supported his number two, Yair Lapid, whose skirmishes with religious parties endear him to largely secular Russians.
So after emulating Trump’s unbridled rhetoric and embracing his no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, below-the-belt campaign tactics, Netanyahu is set to adopt Putin as his patron saint as well. It is a sign of American and Israeli times that the support of an anti-democratic, authoritarian kleptocrat such as Putin is seen as a campaign asset, rather than a crippling liability.