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By John Helmer, Moscow

President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were both born under the sign of Libra. The zodiac directs them, on the positive side, to be cooperative and diplomatic; on the negative side, to be indecisive and vacillating. For likes, Librans click most on harmony and balance.

October 21 was Netanyahu’s birthday, and for the fourth time in five years Putin (born October 7) telephoned to wish him well. More than that, as Netanyahu was struggling – failing, in fact – to assemble a parliamentary coalition with enough votes to keep him in office, Putin declared: “You are by rights highly respected by your compatriots and by people outside Israel. We in Russia know you as a firm proponent of strengthening friendly ties between our countries and respect you for making a huge personal contribution to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in a variety of fields. I highly value our constructive and business-like relations. I hope to be able to continue our substantive dialogue and fruitful joint efforts in the interests of Russian and Israeli people, as well as regional security and stability.”

This is a very odd choice of exaggerations and misrepresentations for the Russian head of government  to pass to another head of government – especially one who has just lost a national election;   faces  indictment for corruption;  and directs a policy of warmaking against two of Russia’s battlefield allies, Syria and Iran, not to mention allowing his air force to shoot Russian airmen out of the sky to their deaths.   

When Putin told the Arab media last week that his principle is “Russia will never be friends with one country against another”,   he was making an exception for Israel. But why of all the Israelis who celebrate birthdays does Putin pick on Netanyahu?

The foreign message drafting department of Putin’s staff is supervised by Yury Ushakov (Pisces), and the decision on whether to publish messages is taken by the Kremlin press department headed by Alexei Gromov (Gemini) and Dmitry Peskov (Libra). 

Left to right: Yury Ushakov;  Alexei Gromov;  Dmitry Peskov. Gromov is the most powerful of the three and the only one to have been sanctioned by the US.  His assets and oligarch ties have been the subject of detailed Russian press investigations. Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich are reportedly paymasters of businesses associated with Gromov or his family. 

The display of their foreign country preferences is closely followed in Moscow for Ushakov and Peskov; less so for Gromov.  Also well-known is the reluctance of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the General Staff headed by General Valery Gerasimov, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to endorse Putin’s attempt to assist Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.  

The record of Putin’s birthday messages to Netanyahu  can be followed on the Kremlin website here.

President Dmitry Medvedev started the public celebration of Netanyahu’s birthday in 2009. The official Kremlin version of what he told the Israeli then by telegram, not by telephone, was:  “Russian-Israeli relations are showing steady positive growth and are gaining in real substance, which is certainly in our countries’ and peoples’ interests. You deserve credit for your personal contribution to these efforts. I am sure that your unquestioned life and political experience will serve Israel’s interests and help to bring about rapid normalisation in the region. I take this opportunity to reaffirm Russia’s firm commitment to facilitating the establishment of a fair and lasting peace in the Middle East on the basis of equal and reliable security for countries and peoples in the region.”

Prime Minister Medvedev visited Israel in November 2016, his first visit  to the country since 1990, and his first state visit. 

Medvedev is a Virgo, but his wording was positively Libran. The balance between the Israelis and other peoples of the Middle East does not appear in Putin’s messages  to Netanyahu. These were first published by the Kremlin in October 2014 – after Israel refused to join the US and European Union sanctions war against Russia; they continued annually except for October 2018. That interruption was caused by the deaths of fifteen Russian crewmen on board the Il-20 reconnaisance aircraft destroyed during an Israel Air Force attack on Syria on September 17.  

Putin’s birthday telephone call of 2014 was similar to this week’s: “during his years as Prime Minister and in other government positions, Mr Netanyahu has won the respect of his compatriots and great authority in the world. Mr Putin highly assessed Mr Netanyahu’s significant contribution to the development of friendly relations between Russia and Israel.”   The difference between then and now  is in the Kremlin politics of the extra words.

“By rights” implies that having been disrespected by the majority of Israeli voters in the ballot on September 17, when Netanyahu’s Likud party drew 25.1% of the vote and lost six seats (half of them to the Arab party), Putin thinks Netanyahu deserves better treatment by his own people. Who also thinks this in the Kremlin is not known. “Friendly ties”  aren’t what the General Staff and Defence Ministry consider to be Netanyahu’s orders to the Israel Air Force for operations in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. “Regional security and  stability”  is not what the Russian Foreign Ministry considers to be the Israeli contribution to the war in Syria, Gaza, or the Golan Heights.  As for the “huge personal contribution to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in a variety of fields” —  well “huge” is huge – no Kremlin message to Israel has ever used that word before. No Russian Middle East expert asked to identify what this “huge” has been has managed to do so.

What exactly does Putin see in the man that his American counterparts have not?

When Netanyahu was in Washington, DC, in the 1980s – deputy chief of mission at the Washington embassy, then head of Israel’s UN mission — the private assessment of senior US officials working on the Middle East was that when Netanyahu had served in the Israeli army, he  had parachuted too often on to his head. This, the Americans who knew him joked, was the cause of his combination of cognitive damage and libidinal aggressiveness. Since then Netanyahu’s published personal profile has categorically refuted the former.  

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