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In First for a Kremlin Chief, Putin Visits Israel

Times Staff Writer

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin arrived Wednesday night for a visit, the first by a Kremlin leader since Israel was established and another sign of Moscow’s desire for a bigger role in the Middle East.

Putin will spend two days in separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, following a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. During a televised news conference in the Egyptian capital, the Russian leader offered to host an international conference on the peace process this fall, an idea embraced by the Palestinians but greeted with caution by Israeli officials.

Putin’s visit appears aimed at recapturing clout the Soviet Union once wielded in the region -- then mainly in support of Arab governments -- and at shoring up his standing in Russia by allowing him to play the role of international leader, analysts said.

But the visit, coming amid increasingly close ties between Israel and Russia, also underscores a few disagreements between them. Israel objects to Moscow’s planned sale of surface-to-air missiles to Syria and its role in construction of a nuclear power plant in Iran.

Israel and U.S. officials fear that the missiles could end up in the hands of Islamic militant groups and that the Iranian plant will be used to make nuclear weapons.

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Israeli leaders plan to raise both issues with Putin.

Russian officials have downplayed the arms deal, saying the missiles have limited range and would serve defensive purposes. Putin told an Israeli television station last week that the weapons would deter warplanes from flying low over the residence of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as Israeli planes have done after attacks on the Jewish state that the Israelis linked to Syria.

“Until those missiles arrive in Syria, there’s still room for negotiation,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

There was also speculation that Putin would press Israel to extradite several wealthy Jewish businessmen who had fled Russia, where they face criminal charges. Three of the fugitives were associates of former Yukos Oil Co. chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is in jail on tax evasion and fraud charges.

A verdict in Khodorkovsky’s trial in Moscow, expected Wednesday, was postponed until May 16.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week signaled his unwillingness to turn over the businessmen.

“Since the days of my youth I have been opposed to turning over Jews,” Sharon told the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper. “I am saying this in the clearest manner possible.”

Some experts were puzzled by the timing of Putin’s visit because it is not expected to yield any breakthrough agreements. Putin and Israeli President Moshe Katsav are to issue a joint declaration on cooperation today that officials said would be general in nature.

"[Putin’s] popularity polls have been down for a long time in virtually every area except foreign policy. My sense is he simply wants to gain some attention in that area,” said Galia Golan, an expert on the former Soviet Union at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Aliza Shenhar, a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow, said Russia was pursuing two related goals in its recent actions: income from the weapons deal with Syria and a restored status as a counterweight to the U.S.

“The fact that there is only one superpower today -- the United States -- angers the Russians, who would like to see a different world, a multi-superpower world, where they play a central role,” Shenhar told Israel Radio.

But by traveling to Egypt and Israel, Putin is displaying a “normal and sane” foreign policy that could complement that of the United States, rather than work against it, said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute for Israeli and Middle Eastern Studies, a Moscow think tank.

“There is evidence that Moscow has finally begun to pursue a sensible policy in the Middle East. This policy is rather carefully considered and balanced. It presupposes being active in all directions and spheres, including Iran and Syria,” he said.

Russia, along with the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations, is part of a quartet sponsoring a “road map” to peace that envisions a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Russian leader said foreign ministers of the quartet are to meet in Moscow on May 8. Putin did not fully spell out who would participate in the proposed autumn peace conference, saying only that he would invite “all the countries concerned [with Middle East peace] and the quartet.”

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the conference would be premature.

“We believe there will be an appropriate time for an international conference,” he said. “But we are not at that stage now, and I don’t expect that we will be there by the fall. We need to continue to focus our efforts on the disengagement plan,” he added, referring to Israel’s planned withdrawal this summer of soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and small sites in the northern West Bank.

Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, echoed his concerns. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said a conference could pave the way for talks on a permanent peace agreement after completion of the pullout.

An estimated 40,000 Israelis opposed to the pullout attended a rally Wednesday near the main bloc of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Leaders urged demonstrators to engage in civil disobedience to block the evacuation of all 21 Gaza settlements and four tiny West Bank communities, Israeli media reported.

Israeli officials hailed Putin’s visit as a sign of how far relations have come since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which broke off diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 Middle East War and did not resume contact until 1986.

Putin’s ties with Sharon are close, while trade between the two countries has risen steadily -- to $1.2 billion last year, more than Russia’s trade with the entire Arab world, according to Israeli officials. In addition, the arrival of more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s has left a major imprint on Israel, where they account for nearly one in six citizens.

Putin has backed Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and has urged the Palestinians to cooperate with the pullout. He also has condemned attacks by armed Palestinian militants.

In his visit with Palestinian officials, Putin is expected to discuss the peace process and reach a deal to supply dozens of Russian armored vehicles to the Palestinian security forces, which are under new command.

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Times staff writer Megan K. Stack in Cairo and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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