NPR Defends Bizarre Claim that Israel ‘Loves’ Putin

In a piece posted to NPR’s website shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reporter Daniel Estrin bizarrely claims that Russian leader Vladamir Putin is “beloved” by Israel. He should know better.

The Feb. 28 piece, entitled “After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Jerusalem’s Putin Pub is now just named Pub,” talks of Israel’s delicate relationships with Ukraine and Russia, and asserts:

Putin remains a beloved ally. His military is stationed in Syria, and he gives Israel the freedom to bomb Iranian and Syrian weapons and soldiers there.

NPR’s claim that Putin is a “beloved” ally to Israel is certainly one opinion. But it’s an unfounded one — far-fetched, unsubstantiated, but nonetheless presented as fact, in an apparent an attempt to splash some of Putin’s unpopularity onto the Jewish state.

What Does NPR’s Standards Editor Say?

When challenged, NPR’s standards editor Tony Cavin stood by Estrin’s claim, insisting it an “accurate” reflection of the relationship.

Cavin, who recently joined NPR, professes to believes in “fairness, honestly, and transparency.” When reporting on subjects, “we try to fairly reflect their positions,” he asserted when applying for his new position. “We need to be honest with the people we are covering and with our viewers. And we need to be transparent, we need to let everyone know what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

And yet, the new standards editor steadfastly refused to back up the allegation and avoided addressing the substance of challenges.

Is This Love?

The substance is that polls, Israeli officials, and plugged-in analysts paint a very different picture than the one Estrin presented to NPR readers.

In 2020, for example, a Pew poll found that 60 percent of Israelis have no confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs, compared to 36 percent who have confidence. As the New York Times reported the day before Estrin’s piece was published, Russian speakers in Israel, too, have been largely unified in “turning on” Putin after the invasion.

And just days after Estrin wrote of a beloved alliance, Israel voted at the UN to deplore Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

While Estrin’s piece seems to suggest — again oddly — that Russia’s presence and gatekeeping in Syrian contributes to making Putin “beloved,” analysts and Israeli leaders have been clear that this arrangement, not to mention the strong ties between Russia and Iran, lends itself to an uneasy, or at best pragmatic, relationship.

Again, from the New York Times:

It is a “delicate situation for Israel,” said Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister…. “On the one hand, Israeli is an ally of the United States and a part of the West, and there can be no doubt about it,” Mr. Olmert said in a phone interview. “On the other hand, the Russians are present in Syria, we have delicate military and security problems in Syria — and that requires a certain freedom for the Israeli military to act in Syria.”

The reporters add: “Conscious of the need to placate Russia, Israel has rejected several requests” to send military equipment to Ukraine.

This is love? Rather, as the dek to the Times article puts it, Israel “doesn’t want to provoke Russia.”

Orna Mizrahi, a researcher and former Israeli national-security adviser, has likewise described a begrudging relationship. “The U.S. is our very important ally, but since the civil war in Syria we have had to deal with the Russians because they’ve become our neighbors.” Israel, she told the New Yorker, “is restraining its own desire to help Ukraine … as a kind of quid pro quo” for Russia not authorizing Syrian use of sophisticated Russian air defenses.

Another former national security adviser is quoted in the Washington Post making a similar comment:

“The heart of the Israelis is with Ukraine, no question,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser. “We need freedom to act in Syria, to contain the Iranians. We cannot ignore the fact that they are there.”

The headline of that piece: “Israel throws its weight behind Ukraine but is wary of provoking Russia.”

Or in the words of the Associated Press, “Israel cannot afford to anger President Vladimir Putin.”

Need to placate.
Have to deal with.
Wary of provoking.
Can’t afford to anger, and can’t ignore.

A love poem this is not.

And these views of the uneasy relationship are the consensus among serious analysts of Israel. It’s an extreme and unreasonable leap from there to NPR’s claim that there’s a “beloved” relationship with Putin.

Past NPR Reporting

Does NPR tend to characterize the Israel and Russia as allies, let alone “beloved” ones? We looked on the Nexis news database at some past coverage by the network. The top search results generally describe Israel’s enemies as being closely allied with Russia, and are consistent with the above analyses noting a pragmatic and often tense relationship:

  • After Syria shot down a Russian plane, NPR reported that “Russia isn’t blaming Syria. It’s holding Israel responsible.”
  • Putin’s move into Syria “forces Israel to deal with Russia in a very practical way,” another piece noted.
  • Israel’s arch-enemy Iran “has been a very important ally for Russia.”
  • Israel opposed a Trump-Putin ceasefire agreement in Syria because “Israel fears Russia may not be willing or able to enforce the cease-fire.”
  • Russia, NPR said, is “a powerful ally of the Damascus regime,” another enemy to Israel.
  • Another NPR reporter noted the consequences of Russia’s alliances with countries that are hostile to Israel: “The issue is if you want to be close to Israel, you certainly don’t give Israeli intelligence to the Russians, who are allied with Assad and Iran,” she noted.

One segment, from 2019, did use the term “ally” in a piece discussing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ties with various world leaders, including Putin.

In reference to Russia, specifically, it played a clip from an interview with Israeli former Israeli ambassador Yosef Livne, who characterizing the nature of the relationship as follows: “It’s a power — the one that calls the shots or most of the shots in Syria. So I don’t think that there’s room here for lovey-dovey elements. It’s real politics.”

“Israeli realpolitik isn’t new,” responded the NPR correspondent, echoing and acknowledging Livne’s point about a relationship governed by power and not love.

That NPR correspondent? Daniel Estrin.