SOCHI, Russia — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked exhausted and seemed unusually uninhibited on his flight from Sochi Thursday night, heading home after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So exhausted and uninhibited, in fact, that he ventured out of the First Class cabin and toward the back of the plane, to the press area, to try to get some sleep. “You guys have three seats each,” he explained, picking up a blue blanket. “In my seat up front, I can’t even stretch my legs properly.
“Just don’t bother me with your questions,” he added as he prepared to nap.
The idea, however, didn’t sit well with his Shin Bet body guards. On Tuesday evening, they had led Netanyahu off the stage at an election rally in Ashdod, to the sound of sirens warning of rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza. Being required now to protect the premier from the madding crowd of journalists, ready to fire questions on all cylinders, was too much for the security detail, and they made this clear to him.
So Netanyahu turned around, apparently disappointed, and went back to his cramped seat at the front of the plane. He spent the rest of the flight on his laptop, plugged into the electricity socket between the chairs.
Netanyahu has traveled numerous times to Russia. And while this one-day trip came just five days before the general elections, it was not solely for the benefit of his campaign. The army officers who escorted him weren’t lying when they stressed the need for constant and maximum coordination between Russia and Israel – everywhere, all the time, with direct lines of communication and plenty of Russia-speaking Israeli officers.
And you can believe Netanyahu when he told journalists onboard that the Israeli entourage sat with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his team for three hours, huddled over military operation plans and maps with command areas in Syria. Putin, his ministers and their solemn-looking aides need this coordination with Israel because they have their own interests when it comes to Iran – even if, on this visit, they may have sometimes felt like extras on the set of Netanyahu’s campaign.
The issue, of course, is the timing. There is always something fishy about a prime minister who hops on a plane to meet with the head of a superpower days before polling day.
Menachem Begin was adamant to the day he died that he did not order the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor precisely on the eve of the 1981 elections because of electoral distress. “Would I send off our finest warriors and sons to a mission so daring, so dangerous, just to win an election?” he protested. Well, maybe yes and maybe no – but either way, Begin won those elections by a large margin, despite the country’s distressing state at the time.
Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin took place in Sochi, a holiday resort on the Black Sea, which has become a popular Israeli tourist attraction because of its relative geographical proximity and attractive pricing. The beach by Putin’s vacation home is reminiscent of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline in the 1950s. The structure itself is white concrete, large and well-kept, though with the dreary look of old-time Soviet architecture.
Putin spends his summers here. But on Wednesday, he flew to the Russia-run Republic of Dagestan, to commemorate his victory over the Chechen forces in the area 20 years ago. Back then, Putin suppressed the radical Chechen militants by any and all means necessary, much to the chagrin of the international community.
On Thursday, Putin was late returning, and Netanyahu had to wait for close to three hours in a nearby Hyatt. Was this a case of the Kremlin signaling its discontent toward Netanyahu? Avigdor Liberman, the Moldovan-born head of Yisrael Beytenu and Netanyahu’s nemesis, claims that “with Russians, there is nothing unintentional.” Still, if Liberman was required to wait three hours for a meeting with Putin, he would likely contend that “this is quite common in Russia. Understandable, even. Not a problem.”
Forced to kill time in the front yard of Putin’s resort, the Russian journalists did little to hide their irritation. Some of them had made the two-hour flight from Moscow especially for this event, even though it was patently more important for the Israeli prime minister than for their local audience.
Anton Vernitsky, the political analyst for Russia’s Channel One TV station, said he had come in expectation of a confrontation between Putin and Netanyahu over the latter’s Tuesday pledge to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley; Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, had already been critical of the idea.
But there was no such public row. Netanyahu later said he had pointed out Russia and Israel on the maps, showing Putin Russia’s vast territory and Israel’s tiny size, and saw his host extend an understanding smile. Possibly.
The Israeli journalists were also killing time. How so? Plowing through the high school yearbooks of senior politicians. Did you know, for instance, that Yamina leader and ex-justice minister Ayelet Ben-Shaul (Shaked) was a ballerina in high school, and that she dated Niv Raskin, today a leading TV sportscaster? Or that Likud Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz was a heart-throb who broke every girl’s heart? Or that Yair Lapid wrote his own yearbook description with a period after every word – “Hot. Warrior.” – much like his Blue and White party’s election slogans?
Putin came back from Dagestan, finally, full of fighting spirit. That bitter Chechen war had brought back memories – some of which he shared with Netanyahu, while praising the latter’s war on terrorism. Alongside him, his ministers sat poker-faced; for Lavrov, of course, that is the norm.
Netanyahu’s entourage included the national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat; Maj.-Gen. Amir Abulafia, head of the IDF’s planning directorate; and Gen. Dor Shalom, head of the Military Intelligence research division. In off-the-record conversations, the army officers sounded moderate and temperate, certainly not hungry for battle. Thankfully, the uniforms are sometimes those taming the suits.
And then there was Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin, who always accompanies Netanyahu to these Putin meetings, serving as translator.
Elkin is what you’d call an all-round player, expert in almost every topic and able to provide convincing explanations of most events, even those that may upset Israel – such as US President Donald Trump’s current courtship of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
So it may be worth heeding Elkin’s assertion that Israel will face a third round of elections in early 2020. Why’s that? He referred us to the legalese of Israel’s Basic Law: The Government, which states explicitly that if no elected nominee is able to form a government in the allotted time after elections, “then the Knesset shall be deemed to have decided to disperse.”
Does Elkin know something we don’t? Does Netanyahu? Did Putin?