Jewish Democrats have been imploring President Obama to visit Israel to no avail ever since he was elected. But while the president has conspicuously avoided Israel during his foreign trips even when visiting the Middle East, the authoritarian running a far less friendly country has no scruples about coming to the Jewish state. The Times of Israel reports today that Vladimir Putin, who recently returned to the presidency of the Russian Federation after slumming for a few years in the prime minister’s office, will be heading to Israel later this month.
Putin will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem and dedicate a monument in Netanya to soldiers of the Red Army who were killed during World War II. He will also visit the Palestinian territories and Jordan. The visit will be Putin’s second to Israel as the leader of Russia (he previously visited in 2005) and puts President Obama’s refusal to go to Israel in an interesting light. Even though the president has embarked on a year-long Jewish charm offensive motivated by his desire to hold onto the Jewish vote this November, his decision not to try and win Israeli hearts and minds by coming to their country is curious, especially because it would be to his political advantage to do so.
Putin may be beset by demonstrations protesting his authoritarian rule at home and his support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and his equivocal attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program won’t win him any popularity contests in Israel. But his public attitude toward the Jewish state is friendly, even going so far as to call Israel a “Russian-speaking country.” His visit is more than just a diplomatic exercise as it sends a powerful message about Israel’s legitimacy to hostile Middle East nations that still look to Russia for support.
But though President Obama was willing to go to Israel while running for president in 2008, his deep dislike for Netanyahu has led him to avoid it since then. Though he spent his first three years in office picking fights with Israel, his deliberate avoidance of Israel in June 2009 when he spoke to the Arab world from Cairo (and made an insulting comparison between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians) was resented even more than some of his comments about Jerusalem and the 1967 lines. Israelis duly noted it and polls have consistently shown him to be the least-liked American president in recent memory.
Much of this hostility might be ameliorated by a state visit where he could publicly show his respect for Israeli sensibilities and support for its security. But though Jewish Democrats have called for such a trip and Republicans have feared that it would lessen their chances of an increased Jewish vote in November, it hasn’t happened.
Those Democrats who have attempted to claim that Obama is Israel’s best friend ever in the White House — a claim that has been met with hilarity by many American Jews and incredulity by Israelis — the fact that Putin is going to Israel this summer while Obama still avoids it makes this argument even less credible.