MOSCOW – Israeli-Russian relations are reaching unprecedented heights, Russia’s chief rabbi said Tuesday, positing that the countries are rapidly improving ties because they are each “snubbed” by the international community.
“There’s never been a time when the ties were so close,” Rabbi Berel Lazar told The Times of Israel. “There’s no question that if you think back 40, 50 years — even 25 years ago when the relations started, it was still very cold. Israel was taboo. I remember those days when we dreamed of the Russian president visiting Israel; it was something nobody thought would be possible.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow this week for his fourth meeting with President Vladimir Putin in less than 12 months. The Israeli leader was received with many official honors, a welcome he called “exceptional.”
Lazar, who was born in Italy, received his rabbinic ordination in the US and has been serving as Russia’s chief rabbi since 2000, is scheduled to meet Netanyahu Wednesday morning together with other senior leaders of the local Jewish community.
The improving ties between Moscow and Jerusalem can, in part, be attributed to the common experience of terrorism but also to shared cultural and economic goals, Lazar said.
“It’s also because today Russia is being snubbed by others, and Israel is more or less in same situation, they found each other,” he said. “Some countries in the world like to feel they’re the policemen of the world. They’re the ones to tell Russia and Israel what they should do. I think the time has come for world leaders to sit around the table and understand we’re all equal. There shouldn’t be different standards for different countries. You can’t expect from Israel more than from any other country.”
Said to be close to Putin, Lazar — who belongs to the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement — is sometimes criticized as too uncritical of the Kremlin’s policies.
While Moscow does not seek to replace the United States’ as Jerusalem’s most important ally, Netanyahu is taking a “risk” by getting closer to Putin, the chief rabbi surmised.
“Israel has a simple message: we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. We don’t rely only on America. There are a lot of other countries in the world, Russia is one of them, and we’re going to build a relationship with as many countries as possible,” he said.
“In past years, Israel was much closer to the US than to Russia, but that was when America listened to Israel more. And today when America is not listening to Israel and is not realistic about the problems Israel is facing, I think that Israel has all the right to turn to other countries, find more friends and supporters, including Russia.” he added.
Some countries will not be thrilled about Israel getting closer to Russia and therefore Netanyahu “is taking a risk by coming here” so regularly, he said, adding that he has only been in Washington once in the last year.
The last time an Israeli leader was received in the Russian capital with such honors is over a decade ago, Lazar said.
“It’s really showing the world how much Israel is viewed in a positive way in Russia today. Look at the press in Europe; look at the press in Russia. Look at anti-Semitism in Europe; look at anti-Semitism in Russia. Look at how the president [Putin] is really involved in what’s going on in the Jewish community and how in other places in the world, [the leaders] don’t care about the Jews.”
Despite his lavish praise for Putin, Lazar did not deny that Russia often votes against Israel in international forums and sells weapons to Israel’s enemies in the region.
However, he argued that Moscow considers Israel’s security as “of utmost importance.”
“After every meeting they [Putin and Netanyahu] had in the past, Prime Minister Netanyahu walks out and says, ‘I got enough assurances, I have nothing serious to worry about; we feel Russia really understands our issues and cooperates with us,'” said Lazar.
As opposed to the US and Europe, Russia has friendly relations with some Arab states and Iran, the chief rabbi said. “And sometimes because of these relations [the Russians] have leverage that other countries don’t have. They feel it’s important for them to keep a certain kind of balance.”