Next week, Russian President Vladimir Putin will do something President Obama has not: namely, visit the country of Israel. President Putin will be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Perez and other officials. Talks are likely to focus on Syria’s civil war and the oncoming showdown over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Putin will also attend an unveiling ceremony in town of Netanya for a memorial in honor of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany.
Perhaps more important than the diplomatic exercise is the message the visit sends to Russia’s regional allies in the Middle-East, most of which are hostile to Israel. That message is one of Israeli legitimacy as a regional power and the existence of a working relationship between the two governments--sending a particularly strong message to Iran, which would be damaged most by closer ties between the two countries. Putin was recently quoted as saying “Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country,” in reference to the over one million Russian Jews that have emigrated there.
Although Russian-Israeli relations have generally been cool, this act stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s recent treatment of Israel, which he has yet to visit as President. In a March press conference Obama said: “The measure of my commitment to Israel is not measured by a single visit, the measure of my commitment to Israel is seen in the actions I’ve taken as president of the United States. And it is indisputable that I‘ve had Israel’s back over the last three years.” To quote the great Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
In fact it is quite disputable. No American president has done as much to undermine Israel’s position in the Middle-East as Obama. In 2009 on the Cairo stop of the American Apology Tour, Obama compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. In a major 2011 policy speech Obama called for Israel’s return to pre-1967 borders, a position both damaging to Israel and rife with ignorance. Obama has given significant funding to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which have the stated goal of wiping Israel off the map. And most recently a string of security leaks out of the White House has been apparently aimed at undermining Israel’s ability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. These are only a few of the most egregious examples.
President Obama has cemented himself in history as the president who extended an open hand to the nations of the Muslim world--however, at this point it seems increasingly unlikely that they will be unclenching their raised fist. Unfortunately much of this outreach has come at the expense of Israeli security, particularly his confused attitude toward the so-called “Arab Spring.” A visit to the embattled country early in his presidency would have shown solidarity with a stalwart ally to the entire region. Though at this point, and in an election year, it would likely be seen as cynical.
Though it is unlikely that there will be any major Russian policy changes regarding Syria and Iran that come out of the visit, it does send a clear message. Israel is a legitimate power in the Middle-East and Russia regards it as such. That is something that President Obama has failed to do in a substantive way. Perhaps someone should tell him they have a great golf course in Caesarea.