Knowingly or not, Russia President Vladimir Putin has been recruited to the Israeli election campaign, appearing alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a large billboard Sunday visible to thousands of drivers during rush hour on central Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway.
The poster hanging on Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party’s headquarters on the corner of King George and Ben Zion streets shows the two leaders shaking hands under the slogan “Netanyahu: In a league of his own.”
The campaign comes as the ruling party targets Russian speaking voters, who makes up 12 percent — or some 770,000 — of the 6.3 million eligible voters in Israel, amid a rift with the Israeli-Russian Yisrael Beytenu party.
The image mirrors an almost identical billboard campaign seen across Israel during the run-up to the previous elections in April, in which Netanyahu is featured alongside the same slogan shaking the hand of US President Donald Trump. That billboard was featured Sunday on another side of the building, while a third billboard showed Netanyahu with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
Before the previous elections, the slogan was understood to refer to Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump, who in 2018 fulfilled an election promise and moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move was widely praised by the Jewish parties across Israel’s normally very partisan political spectrum.
Trump himself reposted the image on social media days before the election, drawing claims of impropriety and taking sides ahead of the national ballot.
Touting the same “in a league of his own” line alongside Putin appears to place the Israeli prime minister on par with the Russian leader, who has ruled for almost two decades and whose critics accuse of jailing political opponents, curtailing press freedom, and eroding free and fair elections.
Last week Netanyahu overtook Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, as the country’s longest serving premier, having held the office, non-consecutively, for over 13 years.
At its founding, Yisrael Beytenu was widely perceived as a faction representing the interests and values of Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Even at its highest point, when it won 15 seats and became Israel’s third largest party in 2009, it was still seen primarily as a “Russian” party.
Since then, however, his fortunes have flagged, as fewer Russian-speakers have felt the need to vote for a purely ethnic interest party. In April’s election, Yisrael Beytenu only received five seats, one fewer than it held previously.
As a result of Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman’s decision not to join Netanyahu’s government after the election and his declaration that he will not automatically support the prime minster after September’s vote, Likud has increased its efforts to target Russian-speaking voters.