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Netanyahu's Putin campaign alienates Israel's Russian-speaking voters

A new election poster of Netanyahu gloating about his relationship with the Russian authoritarian leader may have entirely missed the mark with younger Russian-speaking voters, revealing deep generational divides.

By Lily Galili

Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in central Tel Aviv show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, on July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)

Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in central Tel Aviv show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, on July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)

Over the past few years, Israel has seen a small stream of new immigrants from Russia. Tens of thousands of liberal, educated Jews from a fairly high socio-economic status are fleeing the country they had once thought they were going to spend their entire lives in, disgusted by the violent deterioration in democracy there. They are labeled the “Putin Aliyah,” in honor of the man who prompted their departure from Russia.

One can only guess the nausea they felt last week upon discovering the Likud party’s enormous campaign posters in Tel Aviv, which featured Prime Minister Netanyahu in the company of Putin under the slogan “A Different League.” The posters were put up the day after the opposition in Russia held a mass demonstration that was brutally put down by the police.

Russian immigrants took to social media to express their anger at the Likud’s Putin glorification campaign. “I feel like Putin is chasing me as I pass under his huge poster with Bibi in Tel Aviv,” said Ella Brisova. Brisova, who works as a journalist, left Russia in 2013, a year after Putin was elected president for the umpteenth time. With the continued decline of democracy in Russia, she felt it would be increasingly difficult to continue working in her profession.

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The Putin Aliyah began two years earlier, in 2011, after the president announced his intention to run once again. “I’m very frustrated to see his portrait on the streets of Israel,” said Brisova. “I don’t want him and his worldview to make their mark on Israel. Many Russians and Ukrainians feel the same way.”

‘Bibi is not in Putin’s league yet’

Had the negative response come solely from those who fled Putin’s growing authoritarianism, it would have hardly made a dent in Netanyahu’s election campaign. After all, the Putin Aliyah’s numbers are relatively small, and the Russian president is certainly not the first tyrant with whom Netanyahu has gladly been photographed.

But the new immigrants are not the only ones upset by Putin’s image in the heart of Tel Aviv. The “Russian vote” makes up approximately 15 Knesset seats, and was roughly equally divided between Likud and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party in the last elections. According to the latest polls, two to three of those seats have moved from Netanyahu to Liberman, and it is likely that most Russian-speaking Likud voters are older, more committed to the party’s ideology, and perhaps would remain loyal to Netanyahu through thick and thin. They are most likely not intimidated by Netanyahu’s relationship with Putin. Perhaps the opposite is true.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia, June 7, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sara and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia, June 7, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The older voters continue to consume Russian media, which shapes their worldview. Their adulation for a “strong leader” is one of the defining characteristics of the post-Soviet identity and is based on the idea that someone like Putin can benefit his nation far better than democracy can. But the younger generation has a different attitude toward their erstwhile leader.

“When I see the photo [of Netanyahu] with Putin under the slogan ‘A Different League,’ I think Netanyahu is lying,” said David Eidelman, a political analyst who focuses on Israel’s Russian speakers. “Netanyahu is still not where Putin is when it comes to corruption and is not in Putin’s league when it comes to crushing the legal system. It is impossible to investigate and file a criminal indictment against Putin. Bibi might want it to be like that, but this is still a dream. Putin, in my eyes, is not the right person for promoting an election campaign — neither among Russians nor in general.”

A split in the community

If you ask former Yisrael Beiteinu MK and current Netanyahu consultant Robert Ilatov, criticizing Putin’s inclusion in the campaign carries a political price for Israel. “There is an extensive strategic discussion taking place among world leaders,” Ilatov explained. “Bibi is not simply part of this discussion, he is the initiator. Those who try to present it otherwise are causing political damage to the State of Israel. After all, the poster does not refer to what is happening there on the inside [in Russia]. Thus, anyone who attacks this issue harms Israeli interests.”

Putin may visit Israel prior to the elections to attend the inauguration of a memorial to the victims of the siege on Leningrad. The Prime Minister’s Office is applying pressure on the Russian leader, though the final decision is entirely in Putin’s hands. At this point, Netanyahu himself will have to consider the feasibility of the visit.

While Ilatov is right when he says that the Putin banner does not reference what is happening inside Russia, the truth is that it is impossible to completely separate the “internal” and “external” in the country. Putin, after all, is not just another iron-fisted leader, dictator, or tyrant. He evokes strong emotional reactions in hundreds of thousands of Russian speakers in Israel and continues to influence their lives from afar.

Consider the immigrants who came to Israel from Ukraine, whose population size is almost equal to that of Russian immigrants. Israelis tend to lump all those who came to the country from former Soviet states into one group, labeling them “Russians.” But the mistake is not merely sociological — it also has political consequences. The Crimea crisis and the Russian takeover of the territory have torn apart the Russian-speaking community in Israel, pitting Russians against the Ukrainians.

Anti-LGBTQ sentiment from Moscow to Israel

Coincidentally, the Likud headquarters in central Tel Aviv, where one of the Putin posters was hung, is located directly across from Meir Park, home to the city’s LGBTQ center. If belonging to the Israeli LGBTQ community is hard enough, being part of its Russian-speaking contingent is event harder. Those who immigrated from the U.S.S.R. brought with them a form of homophobia that was the result of Soviet education. As time went on, the Russian-speaking community’s anti-LGBTQ stance softened, although it has not disappeared entirely.

The passing of anti-LGBTQ legislation in Russia, which began in 2013, creates not only intolerance in the country but puts members of the community in real physical danger. In the global village of Russian speakers, the atmosphere “there” crosses borders into the community in Israel. Nadia Eisner, a member of the LGBTQ community in Israel and an editor at the Russian-language Relevant news site, sees a direct connection between the homophobic rhetoric coupled with growing violence in Russia and the increasing homophobic atmosphere in the Russian-speaking population in Israel.

Members of the Israeli LGBTQ community demonstrate against Russian President Putin while he is in Israel on an official visit, June 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Members of the Israeli LGBTQ community demonstrate against Russian President Putin while he is in Israel on an official visit, June 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Eisner argues that there is a synergy between the homophobic violence in her home country and the growing anti-LGBTQ sentiment among the more radical segment of Israel’s national-religious community. Recently, a homophobic parade was organized in Haifa under the slogan “The Family March.” According to Eisner, this is the first time in the history of the Russian community that such a procession was publicized as an event on Facebook in Russian. The photos from the parade show religious Jews holding signs in Hebrew, while behind them stand a large group of Russian speakers with signs of their own, one of which says, “Mom and Dad make a happy family” in Russian. That’s a bit strange, considering immigrants from the former Soviet Union came in families of all forms, including a particularly high rate of single parents.

Partnering up with Putin is not the only problematic aspect of the campaign being run by Netanyahu, who is often described as a master campaigner in the Russian-speaking public. One likely possibility is that Netanyahu is simply relying on poor campaigners when it comes to targeting Russian speakers. Another possibility is that, for the first time, Netanyahu is stepping into uncharted territory. In previous elections, Bibi had subcontractors like Natan Sharansky or Liberman who could clinch the Russian vote.

There is yet another explanation. Despite what commentators believe, it is possible that the Likud’s Putin campaign is not meant to target Russian speakers, but is geared toward the Israeli public writ large, which is uninterested in internal Russian politics and is impressed by seeing the leader of their small country playing in the big leagues with the likes of Trump and Putin.

Lily Galili is a journalist, lecturer on immigration and Israeli society and co-author of the book ‘The Million that Changed the Middle East.’ A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.
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    1. Ben

      There is a distinct odor of fascism in this Ilatov’s pontifications. If you criticize “The Initiator,” Our Bibi, you damage the state, you harm the state’s interests. Putin’s cruelties? Putin’s crimes? Who cares? Israel above all.

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordine

        The task of the Israeli government is to defend its land, its People and their interests and not to satisfy the political fantasies (which have failed everywhere) of some dreamers living abroad .. You must not forget this crucial point .

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          And with that, Itshak Gordinov Halevsky, you admit to a colonizing, neo-fascist, disinformation-spreading, western-liberal-democratic-order-destabilizing, Putinesque ethic and at one and the same time belie the pose that Israel is a liberal democracy and an inseparable bipartisan ally of the United States. We see that all that is to be regarded “a political fantasy.” Duly noted. I can always count on your indiscretion. At least we know where the battle lines are drawn.

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            I confirm: The goal of the Israeli government is to improve its diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible and not to redo the world to satisfy a few dreamers. All countries do the same.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “The goal of the Israeli government is to improve its diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible”

            I really wonder, Halevy, if you can ever say anything honestly. The goal of the Israeli government is to improve its relations with those it wants to improve its relations with, and to ignore or demonize those who it wants to ignore and demonize. The Netanyahu government likes Putin and Hungarian and Polish far right anti-Semites and xenophobes. It improves relations with them. The Netanyahu government did NOT want to improve its diplomatic relations with the Obama administration of the United States of America, it instead engaged in unprecedented, brazen demonizing of and undermining of that administration by going behind its back to the opposition party all the while brazenly pretending to seek “bipartisanship” and all the while raking in the Obama administration’s unprecedented largesse and enjoying the Obama administration’s unprecedented actual defense of Israel.
            The Netanyahu government does not want to improve its relations with the German and other EU governments so much as exploit them, alternately ignoring and demonizing them.
            And then there is the subject of the Trump and Netanyahu governments’ needless demonizing of Iran and the Iran deal for dishonest purposes. A related subject.

            Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          Fascism failed last time, it’ll fail again this time. It’s unstable and destructive – both to the victims and to the perpetrators who are consumed from the inside. We know this because it happened before. It won’t be any different this time. Enjoy your moment of drunkenness on nationalist bullshit and don’t complain to those of us who are still left when you wake up with a murderous hangover.

          Reply to Comment