By Douglas Bloomfield
Prince Grigory Potemkin was Catherine the Great’s favorite, not just as a lover, but as her military commander and advisor who did much to please her full range of needs. One of his greatest achievements was displayed on her 1787 trip through Russian province of Ukraine on a cruise down the Dnieper River to the Crimea, newly acquired from the Ottoman Empire thanks largely to Potemkin.
Flattery, Good Impression
To please and flatter his patron, Potemkin erected portable towns, like Hollywood sets, no deeper than the facades of a few buildings but intended to make Catherine think they were real villages. The purpose was more than flattery; he was trying to show his benefactor that he had not wasted all of her country’s treasure that she had provided for his wars and other exploits.
The villages would be set up before Catherine’s small flotilla sailed by, watching peasants happily waiving, and then taken down and moved further down river for her next visit.
One stop was at a fortress that later became the city of Kherson. On a recent trip on the Dnieper River I visited Kherson, the only city Catherine is credited with founding. Potemkin, who may or may not have married the empress, is buried in St. Catherine’s Cathedral there, just a few feet from the chair the Russian ruler is said to have used during her visit.
The term Potemkin Village has come to mean a fake settlement built to flatter and impress the builder’s financial backer.
Not unlike Ramat Trump in the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu’s Partisan Politics
I was reminded of this the other day when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government has earmarked $2.3 million to plan for building a settlement in the Golan Heights to be named for the American president. He related plans for the project in June on Trump’s birthday, with the unveiling of a simple wooden sign on land so sparse that it makes Potemkin’s faux villages look like bustling metropolises. No word whether the new town will include a golf course.
That points to Netanyahu’s ongoing — and destructive —penchant for meddling in American partisan politics. His endless fawning over an American president rejected by a big majority of American Jews, and at a time when the bipartisan tradition of the pro-Israel movement here is under siege by Republicans eager to use the issue as a partisan wedge and a far-right fringe of American Jews, threatens real and lasting damage to the relationship between the Jewish state and its most critical ally.
With less than four months before the American election, Israelis and Americans will be asking how much more damage he can do the bilateral relationship, especially if Joe Biden wins, if the prime minister is unable —or even unwilling—to resist pressure from the president and their shared big money patrons to help Trump’s campaign.
Goodbye Bipartisan Support?
Netanyahu, no shrinking violet himself, knows how to flatter his American patron whose ego and thirst for adoration make the Israeli leader look humble and modest.
His stroking of Trump’s massive ego, perhaps illustrated most graphically in Ramat Trump, is also a function of his determination to annex much of the West Bank without U.S. blowback — foreclosing any reasonable possibility of a two-state solution and guaranteeing Israel many more years of isolation and conflict.
The prime minister’s sycophancy can only accelerate the drift away from automatic support for the positions of the pro-Israel lobby in the changing Democratic ranks and the growing detachment of the American Jewish mainstream from the pro-Israel cause. It threatens to make core issues such as continuing U.S. aid and support at the UN more contentious issues.
Inevitably, it will advance the erosion of America’s role as a key player in efforts to bring peace to the troubled region.
After Catherine’s barge floated by, Potemkin had his portable villages taken down and moved further downstream. After Trump leaves office, Ramat Trump’s sign may go with him, but the damage to U.S.-Israel relations and the vital ties between American Jews and the Jewish state may prove much more lasting.