Netanyahu meets Putin as he makes desperate bid for Russian speaking voters ahead of knife-edge election

Raf Sanchez
Netanyahu desperately needs to win over key Russian-speaking Israeli voters - AFP

Benjamin Netanyahu dashed to Sochi yesterday to meet Vladimir Putin as part of an all-out campaign to win over key Russian-speaking Israeli voters ahead of next week’s election. 

With the Israeli prime minister running neck and neck with his centrist rival ahead of Tuesday’s vote, his Likud party is pouring resources into winning over 800,000 Israeli voters from the former Soviet Union.  

Likud believes these voters - referred to in Israel as “the Russians” even though they come from a number of ex-Communist states - could make the difference in the closely-fought race.  

Mr Netanyahu’s decision to fly to Russia on one of the final days of the campaign is widely seen as an attempt to lure older Russian-Israelis, many of whom admire Mr Putin. 

The trip also burnishes Mr Netanyahu’s effort to present himself as a global statesman on par with the world’s top leaders. Giant posters showing Mr Netanyahu shaking hands with Mr Putin and Donald Trump have gone up across Israel with the slogan “Netanyahu: a different league”. 

Political posters showing Netanyahu with Putin, right hang from the Likud Center in Tel Aviv Credit:  Kobi Wolf/ Bloomberg

Likud has also dramatically stepped up its Russian-language advertising in Russian areas as well as on social media. In cities like Rishon LeZion, which is around 20 per cent Russian, buses and billboards are plastered with ads in Cyrillic script.  

“Everywhere there’s more advertising, on the street, on Facebook, on Instagram. You see posters of Bibi in Russian everywhere,” said Vladislav Serov, a 22-year-old who moved to Israel from St Petersburg four years ago. 

The intense campaign is aimed at prying away votes from Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu’s former defence minister who heads a political party that depends on Russian-Israelis for its base. 

Mr Lieberman joined Mr Netanyahu’s coalition several times in the past but the two men fell out dramatically this spring, sending Israel plunging into an unprecedented second election this year. 

Although Mr Lieberman is on the Right, he has indicated he could support Mr Netanyahu’s centrist rivals, the Blue & White coalition led by a former general. That gives a fresh urgency to Likud’s effort to take votes from Mr Lieberman and swing them to Mr Netanyahu.  

“We are running an aggressive Russian campaign and Lieberman is feeling the heat,” said a senior Likud official. Current polling shows Mr Lieberman on course to win 10 parliamentary seats. Likud says it hopes to take at least two of them away from him. 

While that may seem a modest electoral goal, it could make the difference in a close election. Both Likud and Blue & White won 35 seats in the April election but Mr Netanyahu was unable to form a government and called fresh elections.  

Michael Raif, a Likud city councillor originally from Siberia, said his party had established a specific unit at its election headquarters to focus on Russian voters for the first time. “We realised that the Likud needs Russian voters and the only way to get them is by talking directly to the Russian community,” he said. 

Most the roughly 1.3 million Russian Jews in Israel arrived in a large wave after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While many have assimilated easily into Israeli society, hundreds of thousands have struggled to learn Hebrew and integrate. 

One problem is that many Russians arrived as older people and did not work in Israel long enough to build up pensions. 

Others face suspicion from the state’s Orthodox religious authorities about whether they are truly Jewish because family records were lost in the Soviet Union. They are sometimes made to take DNA tests to prove their Judaism before state rabbis will agree to marry them. 

On the streets of Rishon LeZion, Russian voters were divided between Mr Lieberman and Mr Netanyahu. 

Jana Prisant, a 50-year-old office administrator, said supported Likud and that her community had given its votes to Mr Lieberman for too long. “For 20 years we’ve listened to Lieberman. I don’t want to listen to him anymore,” she said. 

In the Gan Hai’r park, elderly Russian men gathered at long tables to play chess and debate politics. Many smelled heavily of alcohol in the midday sun.  

Meir Ba’al Nes, a 63-year-old originally from Belarus, said he was backing Mr Lieberman. “I only believe in Lieberman. He’s a real man.”

Mr Ba’al Nes said he was a Putin admirer but did not believe the Israeli prime minister’s claim to have close ties with the Russian leader. “I don’t buy that they have some special relationship. 80 per cent of us don’t buy it.”