In the midst of a hotly contested election and a tussle with U.S. Democrats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just completed a trip to Ukraine. This is not a hiatus from politics. He is simply moving the campaign trail to Kyiv, 1,800 miles away from the nearest Israeli polling station.
The logic of the trip isn’t hard to discern. There are almost a million Russian speakers in Israel and they turn out in big numbers for elections. In past elections, roughly 40% have cast ballots for Netanyahu’s Likud Party and 30% for the Israeli Bitenu Party, an ethnic Russian list led by Avigdor Lieberman. But that was in the days when the Moldovan-born Lieberman was Netanyahu’s loyal ally.
That alliance is now over. Lieberman was instrumental in blocking Netanyahu’s efforts to build a governing coalition after the last elections, in April. They are now avowed enemies, waging a nasty personal battle on social media and in the press. Polls show Lieberman getting about 45% of the Russian-Israeli vote. If that happens, it is extremely unlikely that Bibi will be able to form a right-wing coalition.
It looks like Lieberman will seek to create a broad coalition that includes center-left parties and excludes ultra-orthodox ones. The vast majority of Russian-speakers are hawkish but secular -- many are not even Jewish by orthodox standards — and they rightly regard rabbinical parties as hostile to their civil rights and assimilation into the Israeli mainstream. That animosity is what Lieberman is leveraging, and it’s a direct challenge to Netanyahu, who considers the ultra-orthodox his indispensable allies.
Netanyahu has touted his friendship with Vladimir Putin to shore up support among the Russian voters. A huge banner featuring the two leaders hangs on the wall outside Likud campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv (there is a banner featuring Trump as well). The slogan “In a Different League” is meant to convey Bibi’s status an international statesman as well as Putin’s endorsement.
But Putin isn’t popular with all the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, especially those from Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV comic and novice politician who was recently, and improbably, elected president of Ukraine, is. Zelensky is a Jew and a fan of Israel’s security policies which he sees as a model in his country’s low-grade border war with Russia.
Twenty years ago, Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to visit Ukraine. That trip, too, took place shortly before an election, but didn’t do much good: Bibi was trounced by Ehud Barak.
This time, he cast that visit as a matter of statesmanship. He and his host announced the opening of hi-tech interest offices in one another’s capitals, a small win for Jerusalem. The rest of the agenda consisted of an official ceremony in which pre-cooked trade documents were signed, a plea to Zelensky to expedite pensions for Israeli Ukrainians (which he has already pledged to support) and a few minor bilateral understandings.
More important was a televised pilgrimage to Babi Yar, the World War II murder pit where the bodies of some 30,000 Jews were dumped by German soldiers and their Ukrainian collaborators. Not only was it a “never again” moment, but it Bibi with a chance to rebut critics who charge him with insufficient concern over the rise of neo-Nazi activism in Eastern Europe.
In the run-up to the visit, there were also intimations in the Ukrainian and Israeli media that Netanyahu would offer his services as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. He is, after all, one of the few world leaders who has remained neutral in the conflict. If the idea was floated by the Netanyahu visit, to emphasize his stature, neither mentioned it.
President Zelensky shared Bibi’s interest in playing up the visit. Netanyahu is the first foreign leader he has hosted. Success bolsters Zelensky’s image as a serious statesman and sends a message to Jews around the world that regime in Kyiv is friendly.
Whether that yields long-term mileage is unclear. With Lieberman holding steady in the polls, it is no longer a foregone conclusion that Netanyahu will lead the next government in Jerusalem. His scavenger hunt to Kyiv less than a month before election day shows just how much every vote counts now.
Read the original text at Bloomberg Opinion.