Seeking to secure a visit to Israel by Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the September 17 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be pressuring the Jerusalem municipality and other government bodies to expedite the inauguration of a memorial in the capital to those who perished in the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.
The Jerusalem municipality on Monday fast-tracked the approval of the memorial, which will be built in the city’s central Sacher Park, at a planned cost of some NIS 1.2 million ($340,000), Channel 12 reported.
The channel cited unnamed municipal officials explaining that the rushed approval was due to “enormous pressure” from the Prime Minister’s Office, which is demanding that the dedication ceremony take place before the election.
Netanyahu already invited Putin to visit Israel for the memorial’s dedication during a February visit to Moscow. At the time, Putin said he would make the trip.
Responding to the Channel 12 report, Likud denied the rush to approve the memorial was linked to Putin’s visit.
The statement read: “The request to approve the memorial was submitted before the Knesset disbanded [at the end of May]. At the moment, there are no [diplomatic] contacts taking place to bring President Putin [to Israel] before the election — but he’s always invited.”
Netanyahu has dedicated a large portion of his campaign efforts to winning Russian-speaking voters over to Likud, in a bid to shrink the Knesset showing for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party. Liberman refused to enter Netanyahu’s coalition after the April election, denying him a majority coalition and forcing the prime minister to call new elections, in order to avoid being replaced as premier by another lawmaker.
As part of that Russian-directed campaign, Putin appeared alongside Netanyahu on a large billboard put up Sunday over central Tel Aviv’s busy Ayalon highway.
The poster, draped over several stories of the Likud party’s headquarters building 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.”
Russian-speaking voters are thought to make up some 12 percent of the 6.3 million eligible voters in Israel — or some 770,000.
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 peak, 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, Liberman’s political fortunes have flagged, as fewer Russian speakers have felt the need to vote for a purely sectoral party. In April’s election, Yisrael Beytenu only received five seats, one fewer than it got in the 2015 race.
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 more than 13 years.