Netanyahu in Sochi: Talking to Putin, digging at Liberman
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Netanyahu in Sochi: Talking to Putin, digging at Liberman

The prime minister makes a quick pre-election sortie to meet with the Russian president, and ends up with plenty of time for self-reflection

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)

SOCHI, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin was fashionably late. Three hours late.

The sound of Putin’s helicopter hovering over his summer residence in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea, was a signal for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to finally begin making his way over from the nearby Hyatt Hotel, where he had been patiently waiting for his host.

Perhaps, during the short drive over in his armored car, he had time to reflect on all those he has kept waiting over the years.

The actual meeting with Putin was solid. Netanyahu, who had met earlier Thursday with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, told Putin that the Iranians had significantly stepped up their efforts to harm Israel in recent weeks from within Syria, and that Israel and Russia needed to step up their coordination efforts.

Putin appeared to be familiar with these arguments and didn’t bat an eyelid as Netanyahu laid out his case.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia, Thursday Sept. 12, 2019. (Shamil Zhumatov/Pool Photo via AP)

Putin was miserly this time with Netanyahu, refraining from any grand gestures that might boost his reelection efforts.

During the prime minister’s last visit in April (also days ahead of an election) he returned to Israel the remains of  Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the 1982 Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub.

This time, he had nothing to offer except the vague wish that after the election next week, Israeli politicians will continue on Netanyahu’s path.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Ben Gurion airport on Monday (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at Ben Gurion Airport, June 25, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu, for his part, may have been speaking to Putin, but was actually looking toward Israel, promising to care for the welfare of the Soviet veterans, the millions of Russians living in Israel, and solving their pension crisis — a clear dig at his rival Avigdor Liberman, who has long positioned himself as the champion of Israelis from the former Soviet Union, and whose refusal to join Netanyahu’s putative coalition after April’s vote led to the year’s second general election next Tuesday.

Netanyahu appeared tired on this trip. His combined political and diplomatic marathons in Israel and abroad would have taken a toll even on those far younger than him.

It’s difficult to judge the political benefit of this meeting with Putin. The Russian president confirmed that he will visit Israel next January after receiving an invitation from President Reuven Rivlin. Following 13 visits by Netanyahu to Russia, compared to just two by Putin to Israel in recent years, he deserves to escape the Russian winter for a while and enjoy Israel. Will it be Netanyahu who hosts him at the Prime Minister’s Office?

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