Putin Heads for Israel

July 7, 2008 - 8:16 PM

Moscow (CNSNews.com) - In a bid to increase Moscow's influence in the Middle East, President Vladimir Putin this week will become the first Russian president to visit Israel.

Nearly one-fifth of Israel's citizens come from former Soviet countries; and while visiting the Jewish state, Putin is likely to run into criticism of Russia's military and nuclear assistance to Israel's regional foes.

Russia is the lowest-profile member of the "Quartet" of international players promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The other players are the U.S., European Union and United Nations.

"We cannot and will not act instead of the negotiating parties, but as members of international organizations and international institutions whose mission is to tackle this problem ...we'll certainly make all required efforts to have the conflict settled," Putin said in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, ahead of his visit.

Moscow has long supported the Palestinian claim to nationhood, and Putin's tour will include a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. He also will visit Egypt, the first such trip by a Russian leader in more than three decades.

The Soviet Union supported the creation of Israel under the U.N.'s 1947 Partition Plan, but later allied itself politically and militarily with Israel's Arab enemies.

Bilateral relations began to improve shortly before the Soviet collapse in 1991, when Moscow started allowing Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Today, bilateral trade, excluding oil sales, totals $1.2 billion a year, and Israel buys 70 percent of its crude oil from Russia.

But disagreements recently have emerged over Russia's assistance to Iran's construction of a nuclear reactor. Iran insists the program is for peaceful, power-generation purposes - a position supported by Russia - but Israel and the U.S. suspect it is a cover for a nuclear weapons program.

Putin told Al-Ahram that Russian assistance to the nuclear project was conditional on Iran forswearing technology and research that "could lead to creating nuclear weapons."

Russia's decision to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria also is unpopular in Israel, whose government worries the weaponry could end up in the hands of anti-Israeli terrorist groups.

Putin said in an interview with Israeli television on Friday that Russia had the capability to monitor whether the missiles were being transferred to terror organizations.

He added that the missiles "will of course make it difficult to fly over the residence of the Syrian president" - an apparent reference to the "buzzing" of President Bashar Assad's palace by Israeli warplanes in 2003. (The incident was seen as a warning message after Hizballah terrorists in Syrian-controlled Lebanon shelled northern Israel, killing a teenager.)

Another issue of concern in Israel is the reported surge of anti-Semitism in Russia. Despite Jewish emigration, Russia still has one of the world's largest Jewish communities, according to the World Jewish Congress.

While in Jerusalem, Putin is scheduled on Thursday to present a gift to the Israeli people -- a bronze sculpture relating to the Holocaust.

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