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Analysis: Among dozens of world leaders in Jerusalem, Putin proves the dominant presence

Almost 50 world leaders gathered in Jerusalem Thursday for the fifth World Holocaust Forum, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

There was no doubting which international dignitary had the most formidable and dominant presence: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Before the main event, Putin had already spoken at length, alongside Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a ceremony inaugurating a memorial to the up to 1.5 million soldiers and civilians who died in the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, Putin’s hometown (now St. Petersburg). One of those victims was his own older brother, who died as a baby of disease.

From that ceremony in Sacher Park, at a memorial funded by two oligarchs from the former Soviet Union, the Israeli and Russian leaders made their journey through streets closed off for them to the main gathering at Yad Vashem, underwritten by the Russian billionaire Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress and driving force behind the World Holocaust Forum. But while Rivlin and Netanyahu took their seats before the proceedings began, Putin arrived a few minutes later, was introduced separately to the audience — and was escorted by Rivlin to his seat, where the other world leaders were waiting patiently.

The presidents of Poland and Lithuania had decided to stay away from the entire Forum: Poland’s Andrjez Duda was furious that he had not been invited to speak, and his Lithuanian counterpart Gitanas Nauseda was evidently of similar mind. Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky came to Jerusalem but skipped the Yad Vashem event, despite having assured this writer only a few days ago that he would attend, utilizing the transparent pretext that he and his delegation were giving up their seats for Holocaust survivors.

All three presidents were apparently wary that Putin would use the occasion to set out his Russian narrative of World War II and Holocaust responsibility, at their countries’ expense. With good reason.

Putin did speak in terms that would have those leaders squirming uncomfortably and helplessly in their seats had they been in attendance. While highlighting the genocidal targeting of Jews in Hitler’s Final Solution, the imperative to remember, and the urgent need to counter the current soaring revival of anti-Semitism, Russia’s president also took time to declare that the brutal, genocidal Nazis “had accomplices whose cruelty often surpassed that of their masters.” He noted that “those death factories and concentration camps were operated not just by the Nazis but by their henchmen… from many European countries.” And he offered figures for the numbers of Jewish dead in several of those countries.

Only the Red Army put a stop to all those crimes, at the unthinkable cost, Putin said, of 20 million Soviet citizens’ lives lost.

Putin ended his speech with good wishes to all, including the citizens of Israel. He had been similarly gracious at the end of his Sacher Park address, putting his notes aside to express his personal appreciation for the way in which Israel had organized that ceremony.

Not only did Putin dominate Thursday’s ceremonies, but he had also dominated the days before and will likely dominate the days after.

There can be no doubt that this unprecedented gathering of dozens of world leaders represents a boost for Israel’s legally embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His speech at Thursday’s Yad Vashem ceremony was characteristically powerful and articulate — an indictment of the world’s abandonment of the Jews in the Nazi era, and a stirring assertion of modern Israel’s need and ability to protect the Jewish people today.

The ease with which Netanyahu circulates among the world’s leaders is widely admired in Israel. The confidence with which he sets out Israel’s cause and case is widely appreciated.

Through Wednesday and Thursday, Netanyahu was to be seen in the company of the global leadership, addressing them formally, chatting with them lightly, and winning plaudits from many, notably including Putin.

By stark contrast, the man whose party actually outscored Netanyahu’s Likud in September, Benny Gantz, was a marginal presence, condemned to the sidelines — and, exactly like the president of Poland, denied the opportunity to address the Yad Vashem event.

That Vladimir Putin is the region’s new superstar — at center stage in Israel, and pulling strings in Lebanon, Syria, Iran and quite possibly Gaza too — was confirmed at Yad Vashem on Thursday.

Whether anything substantial will come of this gathering in terms of battling anti-Semitism, we may start to see in the weeks or months ahead.

Whether his warm embrace of Netanyahu will help the prime minister achieve what he narrowly failed to achieve last April and September, and decisively win an election, we will discover in less than six weeks’ time.

Header: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)