With Putin's visit, Russia, Israel seek era of friendship

April 29, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - After arriving in Israel late Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin directed his limousine to Jerusalem's Old City to visit the Western Wall, the most-revered site in Judaism.

Because of security concerns, his bodyguards did not allow him to get close enough to touch the wall. But the message Putin wished to send by his midnight journey was clear: As the first Russian head of state to visit Israel, he is seeking a new era of friendship between the two countries.

After decades of Cold War tensions and disputes over Russia's aid to Arab countries, Russia and Israel appear determined to put the past behind them.

Israel welcomed Putin with all the pomp it could muster. A red carpet, military band and honor guard greeted him yesterday as he arrived at the home of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who declared Putin "a friend of the state of Israel." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose parents were born in Russia, went a step further, telling Putin he should feel as though he is "among brothers."

But all the kind words and ceremony were partly undone by the continuing disagreements about policies between the two nations over Iran and Syria.

Israel is highly critical of Russia's plans to sell anti-aircraft missiles to neighboring Syria, afraid that they will fall into the hands of militant groups.

Israelis also remain wary of Russia's supply of nuclear components to Iran, which Israel accuses of trying to develop nuclear weapons, an allegation that Tehran denies.

Israeli newspapers reported yesterday that Israeli officials are also deeply concerned about Russia's efforts to sell armored personnel carriers to the Palestinians, who want to use them for riot control. Israeli officials fear they will be used by militants.

At a news conference here yesterday afternoon, Katsav, whose office is largely ceremonial, urged Russia to cancel the missile sale to Syria.

"In recent days, Syria has given Hezbollah additional rockets," said Katsav, referring to the Syrian- and Iranian-backed militant group based in Lebanon. "Israel is still forced to fight against terrorism, and the Russian missiles might limit our ability to fight terror."

Putin said Israel's fears are unwarranted, noting that Syria had wanted to buy missiles with a range of more than 180 miles but he refused the request because of the potential threat to Israel.

"When we supply arms to the Middle East, we do it very carefully," he said. "These missiles that we are supplying to Syria are for defense against planes. They don't threaten Israel. In order to be threatened by them, you have to enter Syrian territory. Do you want that?"

Putin also tried to calm Israel's fears about Iran. Russia has said that it will require Iran to send its used nuclear fuel to Russia to ensure that Iran does not acquire plutonium that could be used for weapons. But he agreed with Israeli officials that more steps should be taken to ensure that Iran does not try to develop nuclear weapons.

Putin's two-day stop in Israel is part of his first tour to the Middle East, meant to bolster Russia's profile in the region. He is scheduled to meet today with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Russia, along with the United States, European Union and the United Nations, is a member of the diplomatic "quartet" formally overseeing peace efforts in the region.

In an effort to increase Russia's role, Putin announced in Egypt this week that he would convene a peace summit this year in Moscow. His proposal was welcomed by Palestinians but has not generated much enthusiasm from Israel or the United States.

Israel and the Soviet Union were on opposing sides during the Cold War. Israel, a U.S. ally, received billions of dollars in U.S. aid and weapons, while the Soviet Union supplied Syria and Egypt.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia and Israel restored ties. The Kremlin, which had prevented Jews from leaving the Soviet Union, loosened emigration restrictions. In recent years, Russia and Israel have found common ground in fighting militant groups, with Moscow drawing a comparison between its fight against Chechen separatists and Israel's struggle against Palestinian militants.

But many Israeli commentators have balked at suggestions that Russia's role has changed substantially in the Middle East.

An opinion piece yesterday in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv concluded: "Perhaps history will indeed repeat itself and Russia will soon revert to what it once was: the official arms supplier for the Arab and Muslim world, hardly to Israel's benefit."

Putin and Israeli officials were most at ease discussing less-controversial issues, most notably World War II.

Meeting with Putin yesterday afternoon, Sharon recalled the Red Army's role in defeating Nazi Germany.

"The state of Israel and the Jewish people will never forget the sacrifices and deeds of the Russian people, who liberated the Jews from the extermination camps," Sharon said.

Putin unveiled a bronze statue donated by Russia in memory of the Holocaust - six nude figures and a child encircled in barbed wire.

Putin promised to combat the increasing signs of anti-Semitism in Russia.

Israeli and Russian officials also celebrated the most-obvious bond between them, the 1 million Russians who live in Israel today.

Putin's crowded itinerary included a visit yesterday with Russian World War II veterans and a formal dinner with 300 guests, including Putin's former high school German teacher, who emigrated to Israel more than 30 years ago.

"We consider the Russia community as a very strong link in the chain that unites our two states," Putin said.

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