Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never hesitated to get into the trenches and fight dirty with his political life on the line. But foreign policy, not retail politics, remains his strong suit.
In an announcement that had to shock his opponents, especially the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz, whose chances of being able to form a governing coalition appear to be shrinking along with the once-healthy lead he had over the Likud, the government announced that Netanyahu would be traveling to Moscow for a brief working visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin only five days before Israelis go to the polls.
The initial reaction to the news from some on the left was to claim that Putin was intervening in the election. But while those trying to argue that the prime minister is a puppet of the Russian autocrat are peddling conspiracy theories, those who think Putin would prefer Netanyahu remain in office are not wrong.
As much as there is a lot for Netanyahu and Putin to talk about, the timing of the meeting is politically motivated. The Russians are providing the prime minister with an opportunity to showcase his command of the world stage at a moment when that can only help him with the voters. The only plausible explanation for this is that Putin wants to do Netanyahu a favor.
But the reason for this preference doesn’t have anything to do with crackpot theories that assert that Netanyahu is part of an international league of authoritarians in which he and U.S. President Donald Trump, operating under the supervision of Putin, are plotting against democracy. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the situation in Syria is so dangerous that the Russians are afraid about Israeli policy being directed by an inexperienced leader.
In Netanyahu, they have an adversary who advocates for policies with which they don’t agree—such as trying to force Putin’s Iranian allies out of Syria, and a commitment to Israel carrying out strikes on Syrian territory aimed at stopping both Tehran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries from accumulating too much power—but whom they trust won’t go too far. They worry that Gantz might overreact in a crisis because of the need to answer criticisms from right-wing parties that would be in opposition rather than junior partners in the government as they might be with Netanyahu.
In contrast to the close relations that Netanyahu has with Trump, whose actions have also made it abundantly clear that he favors the prime minister’s re-election, Putin doesn’t have common goals or interests with Israel except one: avoiding an escalation of the war in Syria. With so much invested there in terms of troop deployments and prestige, the stakes are so high that they think they are better off dealing with the tough customer they already know than having to worry about what a diplomatic novice would do, even one as thoroughly versed in security issues like former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gantz. Above all, Putin has come to trust in Netanyahu’s innate caution when it comes to deploying Israel’s considerable military strength.
Rather than being an example of collusion with Russia—a specious charge that some of those who resent the American efforts to bolster Netanyahu have also raised with respect to current U.S. foreign policy—the fact that both Washington and Moscow agree about their desired outcome in the April 9 elections says a lot more about Netanyahu’s deft handling of Israel’s foreign policy than anything else.
Although he is routinely blasted in liberal American circles as a hard-liner bent only avoiding peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu should be acknowledged as the most skillful diplomat ever to lead his country.
One of the most underreported stories in the past 10 years has been the progress made on Netanyahu’s watch with respect to foiling efforts to isolate Israel. The prime minister has helped his country achieve breakthroughs with Third World nations in Africa, as well as in Eastern Europe and South America. His achievements also include creating close working relations with Arab nations who were virulent enemies, but now look to the Jewish state as an ally against Iran and Islamist terror groups—something that cannot be underestimated.
A number of these developments are the result of actions that were beyond Israel’s power to control, such as President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran or the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that led to chaos and war in Syria. But there is no doubt that Netanyahu took advantage of the opportunities offered to Israel by events that otherwise presented a clear threat to the country’s security.
Many still focus on Netanyahu’s terrible relationship with Obama and point to his decision to address U.S. Congress about the dangers of the nuclear deal with Iran at the invitation of the Republicans. But while that speech did more harm than good in terms of persuading Congress to reject the agreement, the breakdown of relations with America during the last administration was the fault of Obama, not Netanyahu’s efforts to push back against a president who wanted more daylight between the two allies and thought he had to “save Israel from itself.”
It remains to be seen what either Trump or Putin will ask in return for these favors if Netanyahu is re-elected. But the prime minister trusts in his ability to talk his way out of those dilemmas once he gets there.
After so many foreign efforts in past elections aimed at defeating him, Netanyahu welcomes international support. He has done his best to cultivate the myth that he is his country’s indispensable man, and his ability to get Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights and Putin to acquiesce to military strikes in Syria reinforces that somewhat fanciful claim. It won’t decide Israel’s election, but both Washington and Moscow prefer Netanyahu’s experience to Gantz’s learning curve.
Netanyahu might not be the only person who can cope with dangerous foes on Israel’s borders and a not-so-friendly power like Russia firmly ensconced in Syria. Still, there’s no denying the value of having someone both Washington and Moscow trust leading the Jewish state.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.