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Why Putin Accepted Israel Invitation

Earlier this month, after the announcement of Vladimir Putin’s planned trip to Israel, Jonathan wrote that the visit made a point about Israel’s legitimacy among the nations of the world. It may be surprising—or at the very least ironic—that an authoritarian leader struggling with his own crisis of legitimacy back home could confer any legitimacy on a free, democratic country like Israel. But it was true, and confirmed this week when Putin finally made that trip. The Jerusalem Post reports:

Labor MKs expressed outrage on Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not make time during his short visit to Israel to meet with their party chairwoman, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich….

“It is outrageous that he did not meet with her,” a Labor MK said. “It presents a message that there is a lack of legitimacy for her job if leaders ignore her when they come here. It harms Israeli democracy.”

I don’t think many would agree that it harms Israeli democracy—nor could Putin possibly care less about anyone’s democracy. But the legitimacy argument is one that has followed, taunted, tempted, and usually disappointed Israel throughout her modern existence as a state. There is a reason it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations—whether or not the Palestinians will recognize Israel, and whether the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel. Those Arab states are generally no better than Putin when it comes to their support for rogue regimes and terrorist groups (and in some cases are actual rogue regimes themselves).

But removing Israel’s isolation on the world stage is an essential goal both for Israel and for the international community, which quite often asks Israel to do its dirty work, like taking care of budding nuclear reactors, or to accept Jewish, Arab, and African refugees that others won’t.

Jonathan also discussed the call in some quarters for Israel to rescind its invitation to Putin. Jonathan disagreed, and had the better of the argument. There is no doubt that this isn’t the most comfortable photo-op as Syria descends deeper into civil war next door. But these same voices did not call for the United States to rescind its invitations to Putin, though Putin declined to accept those invitations. (Putin had no interest in attending a NATO summit at which the Obama administration was planning to advocate for Russia’s interests anyway, by ensuring no progress was even hinted at with regard to NATO enlargement. And why would Putin attend a G-8 conference at which nothing would be asked of him?)

Additionally, Putin has been in power now for a dozen years, and he has been a corrupt, repressive thug for exactly that amount of time. Asking the international community to shun him because liberal journalists see the Russian protests as some kind of adjunct to the Arab Spring or Occupy protests (though significantly less violent than Occupy) is a bit inconsistent if those same calls hadn’t been made as Putin’s critics turned up dead or in Siberian prisons during his time in power. Those upset–and rightly so–about Russia’s unwillingness to help the Syrian opposition were far too quiet as the documented ethnic cleansing of Georgians was carried out by pro-Russian militias in 2008.

They are not simply holding Israel to a higher standard than the United States; they are holding Israel to a higher standard than they believe they should be held to. Nonetheless, their sudden interest in Putin’s behavior is surely welcome, and this is a line Israel must tread carefully.

But Israel has something to offer here. American diplomacy with Russia has been, at best, ineffective. And its diplomacy with Eastern European states–a critical hinge connecting Russia and the West–has been an abysmal, irresponsible, spectacular failure. While the Obama administration was busy eroding our relationship with Poland, for example, Israel’s foreign ministry was signing mutual cooperation agreements with their Polish allies. Other Eastern and Central European states have built similar relationships with Israel. (The Czech ambassador to the United Nations once insisted to me, on the record, that Israel belongs in NATO and that his fellow countrymen felt the same way.)

Leading a country with a sizable Eastern European/Russian population and a Moldovan foreign minister, the Israeli government has a much better understanding of the region than the current American administration (which couldn’t even get the translation of one, single Russian word correct). And with more at stake in both Syria and Iran than Washington, Jerusalem is indispensable to those outside the region trying to make sense of it.

So what does Putin get out of all this? A boost in the one thing he wants more than anything else: prestige. Ironically, Yachimovich’s complaint that Putin snubbed her and the Labor party provided more of this than Putin might otherwise have expected.


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