As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was campaigning for re-election this spring – eventually winning a fifth term even as prosecutors were preparing to indict him on corruption allegations – he was boosted by two of his closest friends on the international stage: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Now, he’s paying the two men back with gifts that will last longer than Mr. Netanyahu’s new four-year term in office: a town in the Golan Heights named after Mr. Trump; and a monument in Jerusalem to the tragedy that shaped Mr. Putin’s life, the Second World War siege of Leningrad.
Mr. Trump was accused of meddling in Israel’s April 9 election by announcing – while hosting Mr. Netanyahu in the White House two weeks before the vote – that the United States would become the first country to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in 1981.
Ten days later, Mr. Putin delivered his own assist to Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign when Russian special-forces troops operating in Syria recovered and delivered the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who had gone missing in Lebanon in 1982, and whose fate had long been a national concern. Mr. Netanyahu flew to Moscow to personally thank Mr. Putin, whom he referred to as a “dear friend.”
The two episodes helped seal Mr. Netanyahu’s reputation as a master diplomat and boosted one of his main arguments for re-election: that only he and his personal relationships with world leaders could safely guide Israel in a time of turbulent international relations.
Mr. Netanyahu, who is still in the process of forming a new government, hasn’t forgotten the helping hands he received during an election race that nearly saw him forced from the prime minister’s office by Benny Gantz, the popular former chief of Israel’s army.
“All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video message shortly after his win. “I intend to bring to the government a resolution calling for a new community on the Golan Heights named after President Donald J. Trump.”
It’s not yet known which Golan town will bear Mr. Trump’s name, but Israel’s new parliament, where nationalist right-wing parties hold a majority of seats, seems certain to make Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal law.
Canada, like the rest of the international community, considers the Golan Heights to be occupied Syrian territory, its status to be determined only by a peace treaty between the two countries.
A yet-to-be-built train station in Jerusalem, the closest one to Judaism’s sacred Western Wall, will also be named after Mr. Trump in honour of his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. It was another provocative and pro-Israeli move, given that both Israelis and Palestinians claim the Holy City as their capital.
“He knows how to play on the vanities of the people he wants to have a relationship with. He knows the little touches,” Mr. Netanyahu’s biographer, Anshel Pfeffer, said of his subject, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “Even if you’re not of his political camp, you see a lot of leaders who warm to Netanyahu because this is a politician who knows how to be a national leader.”
Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Mr. Netanyahu of “pandering” to Mr. Trump in hopes the United States would continue to back his right-wing government.
“What’s next? Naming a settlement in the West Bank after Trump, after Trump agrees to allow Israel to annex the West Bank?” Ms. Buttu asked, referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s promise during the election campaign to annex some or all of the 121 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel also captured in the 1967 war.
Mr. Netanyahu’s thank-you to Mr. Putin is in many ways even more personal. During his pre-election visit to Moscow, Mr. Netanyahu invited the Russian leader to visit Jerusalem later this year to attend the opening of a monument to the Siege of Leningrad, a curious addition to the skyline of a city already replete with sacred sites.
Preserving the memory of the 872 days during which Leningrad was surrounded and starved – but which never surrendered to the Nazis – is deeply important to Mr. Putin, a native of Leningrad, which is now called St. Petersburg.
Mr. Putin’s older brother, Viktor, still an infant at the time, died of diphtheria during the siege and Mr. Putin’s mother, Maria, almost died of starvation. Mr. Putin was born in 1952 in a Leningrad that was still recovering from the loss of an estimated 1.2 million people during the long battle to hold off the Nazis.
The only problem with Mr. Netanyahu’s invitation to Mr. Putin is that a Leningrad memorial doesn’t yet exist in Jerusalem.
Haim Ben Yakov, the head of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, a lobby group that promotes better ties between Russia and Israel, told The Globe that while a design for the eight-metre-high memorial has been chosen – it will look like a twisting, burning torch, with an image of the angel from the spire of St. Petersburg’s Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral on one side and a Star of David on another – a location has not yet been approved by Jerusalem city council.
Mr. Ben Yakov said his group was hoping to see the monument built near the Israeli President’s official residence in the city. He said that, since tens of thousands of Jews died in the battle for Leningrad, it was appropriate for Jerusalem to have a memorial to the siege. But he acknowledged that modern-day politics was also a motivator.
“It will certainly help us to strengthen ties between Russia and Israel. Russia has great influence in the Middle East and is involved in political processes. Therefore, good relations between Russia and Israel are important,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Putin’s 2015 decision to deploy the Russian military to Syria and his country’s relatively warm ties with Iran, have made the Israel-Russia relationship a critical one for Mr. Netanyahu. Contacts between Mr. Putin and Mr. Netanyahu have helped ensure that Israeli warplanes can operate over Syria, where they have repeatedly struck at pro-Iranian forces, without being targeted by the formidable Russian anti-aircraft batteries stationed in the country.
Zeev Elkin, Israel’s Minister for Jerusalem Affairs – and a key booster of the Israel-Russia relationship, who accompanied Mr. Netanyahu on his pre-election trip to Moscow – made it clear that the monument was being built specifically to draw Mr. Putin to the city and to deepen the Russian leader’s attachment to Israel.
In an interview, Mr. Elkin said that the Leningrad memorial would be built by summer, but he added that it wouldn’t formally open to the public until the Russian leader made room in his calendar for a visit to Jerusalem. “The day [Mr. Putin] decides to come will be the day we open it.”