Why Putin Feels at Home in Israel

In the wake of the Russian president’s visit, a glance at the intrigue, scheming and cynicism of Russian politics.


In late September 2002, Israeli businessman Yaakov Kedmi landed at a Moscow airport. Kedmi had once headed Nativ, the government agency for promoting immigration from the former Soviet Union and he often traveled to Russia even after his tenure ended. This time a surprise was waiting for him: He wasn’t allowed to enter the country, and was forced to return immediately to Frankfurt Airport.

Upon landing, Kedmi telephoned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was on a visit to Russia. “They put me through to him immediately and I told him what had happened,” Kedmi writes in his autobiography, “Hopeless Wars.” “I told him it wasn’t a private matter – the problem was between the two countries and utterly contradicted the nature of the relationship between Russia and Israel.

“I asked him to speak to President Putin, because talking to anyone else was a waste of time. Sharon said ‘fine,’ but didn’t speak with Putin. He asked Russia’s foreign minister to handle the matter. The foreign minister couldn’t handle it. The head of the security services isn’t subordinate to him and couldn’t care less what he says. Only Putin, the president, could solve the problem.”

This incident is part of a major drama that tells us a lot about Russian politics, which consists entirely of deceitful intrigue, dark scheming, treacherous cynicism and lust for power.

Kedmi first became known in 1967 when he twice burst into the Israeli embassy in Moscow and demanded help in emigrating to Israel. His name was Yasha Kazakov back then. He kept on creating scandals until the authorities got fed up and deported him.

He was around 20 when he came to Israel. He positioned himself in the center of a noisy campaign for Soviet Jews until he was made head of Nativ. In the run-up to Israel’s 1999 election, Kedmi supported Natan Sharansky; his rival Avigdor Lieberman backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Against this backdrop, Netanyahu told Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent Shimon Schiffer that Kedmi had bribed a Soviet official for information that neither the Mossad nor the Shin Bet security service needed.

In his book, Kedmi recounts at length the case’s details. According to him, the “bribe” was a legitimate payment in return for documents about the Doctors’ Plot, the show trial held in Moscow in 1953. Nine doctors, six of them Jewish, were accused of conspiring to poison Stalin and other Soviet leaders. Kedmi doesn’t say why Nativ needed this material. Kedmi says Netanyahu’s version of the story is what prevented him from being allowed into Russia again.

Had Sharon taken the matter up with Putin, maybe everything would have been resolved. Kedmi and Putin know each other well; Kedmi has even hosted him in Israel. According to Kedmi, Putin came to power under the auspices of the Family – the circle of oligarchs that surrounded Boris Yeltsin.

Putin became acting president in late December 1999. At the time he had been prime minister (and before that the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service), and was considered someone who got the job done; he wasn’t a born leader and didn’t have any serious leadership or organizational experience before he became the head of Russia’s security chief. No one thought he had political aspirations.

“The hope was that he would be an obedient president, a puppet president; that he could be controlled,” Kedmi writes. That was a mistake. Putin learned on the job how to be president, and he was a quick study. “Anyone who thought Putin would remain that same gray and obedient man once he reached this position of immense power didn’t understand the nature of the man or the nature of Russia’s government.”

Shortly after he was elected, Putin shared with Kedmi his plans for establishing a new order in Russia: Business and government would operate separately. According to Kedmi, Putin kept his word: The tycoons were kept out of the government. On the other hand, government officials became more deeply involved in business.

“Corruption in Russia today is frightening,” more malignant than ever in Russian history, Kedmi writes. “Nothing endangers Russia’s future more than corruption.” Putin visited Israel this week; it seemed he felt at home.

Heroic myth

On August 9, 1942, a soccer match was held at Kievs sports stadium between a local team and a team from the Wehrmacht. Seventy years later there are still Ukrainians who believe the story that says the Germans warned the Ukrainians not to win and when they did win, 5-3, they were summarily murdered by the Germans. Its a famous story; in the annals of soccer its termed the Death Match.

The New York Times, which published a detailed investigative piece on the affair this week, tends to believe it was a legend. A game did take place; at Kievs World War II museum a period poster announces the match in Ukrainian and German. The Ukrainian players were bakery workers; the Germans served on anti-aircraft batteries. But no evidence has been found that the great victory cost the Ukrainian players their lives.

Ukraine suffered terribly under the Nazi occupation, and many Ukrainians collaborated in the murder of Jews. The Ukrainians needed a heroic myth. In the words of one local historian cited by The New York Times, if it wasnt a true story, we would have had to invent it. Thats apparently what happened.