Netanyahu may meet Putin before elections, officials indicate

Sources in PM’s office say leaders are expected to convene in Moscow ‘soon’ amid speculation the Israeli leader is seeking a summit to boost popularity with Russian-speaking voters

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/ Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/ Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow before the September 17 elections, officials at the Prime Minister’s Office indicated Wednesday.

The officials said plans were underway for the prime minister to visit the Russian capital “soon.”

But officials at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv cast some doubt on the prospects of a meeting, acknowledging there had been talk of a trip but noting that Israel had yet to submit requests for diplomatic visas for its delegation.

The announcement came days after Netanyahu canceled a visit to India, a move that spurred rumors the Israeli leader was eyeing a different high-profile trip to boost his electoral prospects ahead of the national vote later this month.

The prime minister had been confirmed to fly to New Delhi for a one-day trip on September 9, during which he was scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and possibly sign a number of bilateral agreements.

But on Tuesday morning, Netanyahu called Modi to tell him that he would be unable to come due to “scheduling constraints.”

The prime minister’s visit to Delhi ahead of the September 17 poll was widely seen as a boost to his Likud party’s election strategy, which has been stressing his close ties with world leaders. Modi is one of three foreign statesmen — together with US President Donald Trump and Putin — who appear on huge campaign posters outside the Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in Tel Aviv showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)

The premier’s ties to Putin, in particular, are seen as important in pulling in votes from Israel’s large community of Russian expats.

Russian-speaking voters are thought to make up some 12 percent of the 6.3 million eligible voters in Israel — or some 770,000.

Netanyahu has hoped to pull Russian community votes away from rival Avigdor Liberman, whose party has traditionally been their home. Liberman refused to enter Netanyahu’s coalition after the April election, denying him a majority coalition and leading the prime minister to call new elections.

Evidence has so far pointed to Netanyahu’s efforts to hurt Liberman having failed, with Yisrael Beytenu consistently projected in polls to double its Knesset seats from five to 10.

A recent report in 972 Magazine claimed Netanyahu’s embrace of Putin has actually hurt him with young voters of Russian and Ukrainian origin, who are far less sympathetic toward Putin’s authoritarian rule.

On Monday, Hebrew media reported that Jerusalem has been discussing with the White House a grand presidential gesture on the US’s commitment to Israeli security in the coming days, including a possible statement on the two allies’ intent to enter into a defense pact.

The two leaders were hoping to use the move to boost the Israeli premier’s electoral prospects, Haaretz reported. The most likely action, the newspaper said, was a vow by Trump — with few practical implications — that the US will defend the Jewish state from any potential existential threat.

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