Israel-Russia Relations

What Putin's Trip To Jerusalem Really Means

Much of the coverage of the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories focused on two questions: Putin's perceived foot-dragging over Iran, and the visit's significance for the Russian-speaking Israelis who make up about one-fifth of the population, as large as Israel's Palestinian population. The visit proceeded amicably, complete with a "coincidental" announcement of a joint Russian-Israeli award scheme for "Jewish values," and a particularly cozy photo of Putin and Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman tends to be the figure on whom most commentators focus when coming to cover the Russo-Israeli ties: He is seen as the representative of Israel's Russian-speaking community—one fifth of Israel's overall population—and it has been speculated that he will try and bring Israel closer to the Russian orbit, as a counterbalance to Israel's dependency on the United States. This, though, appears to be largely fiction: There’s no patron in the world that would cut Israel as fat a deal as the United States, and besides, whereas the US has prioritized its support for Israel above all other considerations, putting all its eggs in one basket, Russia has other regional allies and interests to placate and accommodate. Lieberman knows that as well as anyone. Even the Russian community in Israel resembles less of a bridge and more of a battlefield, as the two nation-states compete viciously for its loyalty, each seeing all Russian-speaking Jews as a diaspora that needs to be lured back to its historic homeland.

But far aside from international relations and diaspora politics lies an important field in which Israel is beginning to lean more towards Putin’s Russia than toward any of its Western allies: The establishment’s view on democracy and dissent. Just last week, a bill was introduced in the Duma by Russia’s ruling United Russia party, categorizing all NGOs that receive foreign funding as “foreign agents,” requiring them to undergo extra-rigorous financial audits and putting them at risk of exorbitant fines should any faults be found. In Israel, lawmakers from the ruling party of Likud decided not to trouble with investigation, pushing forward a bill that effectively fines such NGOs prima facea by imposing a 45% income tax on their funding. In Russia, most media bows either directly to the government or to Putin-supporting oligarchs. In Israel, the newspaper market is completely dominated by the Pravda-esque free tabloid Yisrael Hayom, launched and paid for by a pro-Netanyahu oligarch, Sheldon Adelson; one of the newspaper’s more prominent columnists, Dror Eydar, was recently revealed as doubling as speech-writer and media consultant for Netanyahu.

One of Netanyahu’s former spokesmen is editing the second-biggest paid tabloid, Ma’ariv, while another is chairing (and purging) the Israel Broadcast Authority. The commercial TV channel most critical of Netanyahu, Channel 10 (due disclosure: I recently did some freelance reporting for this channel’s financial news program) was nearly shut down last year by creditors with the active encouragement of the government, and had to issue a groveling apology to Adelson after running an unflattering profile. The news company’s CEO, the producer of the news program and the anchor resigned in protest, but the reporter who prepared the profile, Avner Hofstein, was recently sacked by the channel in a round of cuts.

On the green pastures of astroturf, Putin has Nashi, a violent, bigoted and jaw-twistingly self-righteous youth movement resembling a blend between the Soviet-era pioneers and the junior league of the Italian blackshirts. While Netanyahu’s supporters are yet to be accused of physical violence, a number of movements pertaining to be grassroots but with strong links to Netanyahu’s closest circles have emerged—My Israel and Im Tirtzu, to name the two most prominent.

The reaction of both states to local expressions of the global Occupy movement are also telling: In Russia, authorities are clamping down on most attempts to organize a march, and by now stand seemingly on the verge of criminalizing strolling with intent to provoke contemplation of politics. In Israel, the accommodating spirit of last summer is gone; attempts to crack down on the reemerging protest marches have backfired, but the state is now doing its best to smother the protest movement with red tape, demanding business permits and other bureaucratic paraphernalia from activists attempting to revive the tent cities.

What’s most important to note is that most of these moves are led not by Lieberman's "immigrant" party (although that party, too, has long since shifted from sectorial to mainstream), but by the Likud itself. Washington’s extravagant and, it seems, entirely unconditional, all-forgiving support for Israel makes it highly unlikely that Jerusalem will try and abandon such a lush political, economic and military patronage, passive-aggressive protestations notwithstanding. But as far as AIPAC’s “shared values” mantra is concerned, Israel’s internal political compass mostly appears to be crawling towards Moscow.