Visit to Russia, Britain has more electoral benefits for PM than India

Netanyahu's surprise trip to London, where he is expected to meet both UK PM Johnson and the US Defense Secretary, there are electoral benefits for both Netanyahu and Johnson.

By
September 5, 2019 01:15
4 minute read.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Kn

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament,. (photo credit: REUTERS)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Tuesday and told him he would be canceling the one-day trip to New Delhi that Netanyahu himself had asked for, the chances are high that he explained to the Indian leader that he would be going instead to Britain and Russia.

Otherwise, Modi could have been insulted when he heard the news of Netanyahu’s preelection travel plans on Wednesday.

“Is India not important enough?” Modi might have asked himself had Netanyahu not prepared him beforehand. “He has the time to go to Britain and Russia, but not here?”

From the very beginning, it was not quite clear what was so pressing for Netanyahu to fly 20 hours to-and-from New Delhi only eight days before the election. The working assumption was that Netanyahu, with this visit, was trying to highlight his diplomatic credentials, contrasting his ability to meet with world leaders against the diplomatic inexperience of his Blue and White rivals Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.

But why schlep all the way to New Delhi for a diplomatic photo opportunity when you can get the same type of pictures – though with different world leaders – with a much shorter flight to Russia and Britain?

Plus, a meeting with Putin has the added benefit – some around the Prime Minister seemed to be advising – of potentially swaying some Russian-speaking voters from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party to Likud. This is based on the assumption that many of the Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel admire Putin, and therefore would be happy to see a Putin-Netanyahu meeting.

But not everyone buys that assumption. Larissa Remennick, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist who is an expert on Israel’s 1.5-million-strong Russian-speaking community, said that if someone told Netanyahu that a meeting with Putin would help him with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, they were giving him poor advice.

In fact, she said, younger Russian immigrants may look at this meeting negatively, since “they look at Putin as a dictator, particularly in light of the recent events in Moscow.” Because of the heavy hand Putin has used in suppressing the recent protests in Moscow, she said, the Russian president’s popularity has gone down “both there and here.”

While Remennick does not think that this type of meeting is an “effective tool to mobilize Russian-speaking voters,” she said that there is one demographic where it could have some impact: among older, retired Russian immigrants who came to Israel later in life, do not speak Hebrew, have a more conservative outlook, are less connected to Israeli society, are more attuned to political developments in Moscow and watch Russian television.

And this demographic is a key reservoir of voters for Liberman. “This [meeting] might register with older voters, but I don’t think that middle-aged voters and those below that care about it at all,” Remennick said.

That position was echoed by Roman Yanushevsky, news editor at Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9.

“There is an opinion here that if there are Russian speakers, they automatically connect with Putin. But that is very much not the case,” Yanushevsky said. “We are Israelis, and he is the leader of a foreign country. What is there between us?”

This is not the first time that Netanyahu will be flying off to Russia days before an election. He did so in April as well, hours after announcing that the remains of IDF Sgt. Zachary Baumel would be returned to Israel. In Moscow, he thanked Putin for his assistance and took part in a ceremony where some of Baumel’s possessions were returned.

But what can, or will, Putin give to Netanyahu that could boost him this time? And, conversely, what does Putin expect from Netanyahu in return? Just as US President Donald Trump certainly expects Netanyahu to give him a hug before the 2020 US elections like he has embraced Netanyahu before the Israeli elections this year, so too will Putin expect something in return. Will Netanyahu, getting campaign help from the Russian president, then be in a position to refuse?

Regarding the surprise trip on Thursday to London, where Netanyahu is expected to meet both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, there are electoral benefits for both Netanyahu and Johnson.

For Netanyahu, it showcases his ability to strut on the center of the world’s stage, and for Johnson – who may soon be running in a snap election against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – a meeting with Netanyahu will highlight Corbyn’s antisemitism and anti-Israel problem.

And the meeting with the new US defense secretary also could potentially have electoral benefits for Netanyahu. For instance, if Esper makes any mention of a US commitment to come to Israel’s aid in the face of an existential threat, or the two men announce the beginning of talks leading to some kind of defense pact, this will be trumpeted over the next two weeks as a significant diplomatic achievement that only Netanyahu could have achieved.

Since nothing close to that could be found in New Delhi, the trip to India – in Netanyahu’s mind – can indeed wait until after the elections.


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