Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avidgor Liberman on Friday rapped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his visit to Russia days before general elections in Israel and suggested the premier was intentionally kept waiting for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“In Russia nothing is by happenstance. Everything there is planned to the smallest detail. When they hold the prime minister of Israel in a waiting room for nearly three hours, this is probably not by accident,” Liberman said at an event in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim.
Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Sochi on Thursday began three hours later than scheduled, as the Russian leader was late coming back from an event in Dagestan.
“Things can’t happen by coincidence” in Russia, added Liberman, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova. “A fly can’t fly without a plane ticket.”
Netanyahu has been campaigning to pick up voters from Liberman’s base of largely Russian-speaking voters, after the Yisrael Beytenu chief refused to join the prime minister’s prospective coalition following elections in April. The premier’s visit to Russia was seen by political analysts as part of this effort.
“They don’t understand why he came,” Liberman said. “A visit like this is purely electoral. It has no significance — not [for] security nor diplomatic. I don’t understand why the State of Israel is paying for this and not the Likud’s campaign headquarters.”
Liberman also argued there was a “complete dissonance” between Netanyahu’s comments to Putin that Israel will act against Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement after the meeting that the prime minister agreed with Russia on the need to respect Syrian sovereignty.
Both Iran and Russia are backers of Syria, where Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years on Iranian-linked targets. Israel and Russia established a so-called deconfliction mechanism since the latter’s 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war, with Netanyahu and Putin having met 13 times since then.
Meeting with Putin, Netanyahu hailed bilateral relations, saying they have never been better. He cited two reasons: more than one million Russian-speakers live in Israel, building a “human bridge” between the two countries, and the “direct relationship” between himself and Putin.
Putin, speaking before Netanyahu, stressed his commitment to Israel’s security but did not address his ostensibly close personal ties with Netanyahu.
“Russia cares a lot about who will be elected to the Knesset, and I hope that whoever enters the Knesset will continue bilateral ties between the countries and will push out relationship forward,” he said.
The timing of Netanyahu’s latest visit to Russia mirrored that of a trip he made to Moscow in April, which likewise came just days before elections in Israel.
The September 17 vote was called after Liberman conditioned joining a Netanyahu-led government on the passage of legislation formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students, prompting the premier to dissolve the Knesset and call a snap vote rather than have another lawmaker have a stab at forming a coalition.
Liberman has since seen a rise in support in the polls and has vowed to force a national unity government between Likud and Blue and White if neither can put together a government without his party.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.