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Expanded trade, peace process on Netanyahu’s agenda in Russia

MOSCOW, March 12 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit here this week came at a time when Russia is trying to raise its profile in the Middle East. Netanyahu sought to prevent an expansion of Russian ties with the region’s Muslim nations during his first official visit here. Support for the Arab bloc was one of the cornerstones of the former Soviet Union’s foreign policy. After meeting Tuesday with President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Netanyahu said Russia and Israel had decided to accelerate economic ties. “It is clear there is a new partnership,” Netanyahu said. “It joins the friendship we have with the United States.” Netanyahu came to the Russian capital bearing a $3 billion dollar proposal to buy Russian natural gas. But he later denied that any proposed trade deal was directly linked to Moscow’s ceasing the transfer of nuclear technology and weaponry to Iran and Syria. “We didn’t discuss [trade deals] in those terms,” the Israeli premier told reporters. Just the same, Netanyahu attempted to get Russian leaders to stop arms and technology sales to Iran and Syria — a call that was rebuffed by Primakov, who sought to downplay the extent and significance of the sales. Netanyahu also sought to have Russia influence Damascus to renew the stalled Israeli-Syrian talks, which were broken off a year ago. Russia has made no secret of its plans to boost arms sales abroad, but it also is trying to find new markets for its vast natural gas resources. Russian sales of nuclear technology to Iran, including recent sales of nuclear reactors, have angered Israel and the United States, which say that Iran intends to use Russian technology to make nuclear weapons. Primakov, however, rejected the accusations, saying the technology could only be used for civilian purposes. Primakov said that Russia had sold Iran “light-water reactors identical to those supplied by the United States to North Korea.” Since last year, Moscow has been involved in the construction of a nuclear power plant at Bandar-e Bushehr, an Iranian city located on the Persian Gulf. With Russia’s nuclear industry facing a severe financial crisis, the country’s nuclear energy minister said earlier this year that he wants to increase exports of nuclear technology. Moscow also has been busily promoting sales of military hardware in an effort to rebuild its military industry. Russia was recently reported to be helping Syria modernize its army by selling Damascus a variety of arms. Despite their differences, Netanyahu and Yeltsin were upbeat in their comments to reporters. Israel and Russia have passed the stage of “mutual prejudices in bilateral relations,” said Yeltsin, adding that the two countries have “energetically moved toward each other.” He said that bilateral trade, which stood at $300 million in 1996, “with goodwill on both sides could increase significantly.” For his part, Netanyahu saw significance in the fact that he was “meeting with the very president of the country, after very complicated relations over the past 50 years.” Netanyahu’s 25-member delegation included several prominent Israeli businessmen who came to discuss expanded trade. Similar discussions took place when Israeli Trade Minister Natan Sharansky visited the Russian capital in late January. In his talks with Russia’s top three officials, Netanyahu also discussed their differences over the Middle East peace process. Since 1991, Russia has been a co-sponsor of the peace process along with the United States. When Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat visited Moscow last month, Yeltsin voiced his support for an independent Palestinian state. On Tuesday, Yeltsin criticized Israeli plans to build a controversial new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem. During a joint news conference Tuesday with Primakov, Netanyahu defended Israeli plans to build the new neighborhood at Har Homa, a move that Palestinian leaders said this week is bringing the peace process to the brink of a crisis. “This kind of doomsday talk and the whole histrionic attitude towards obvious disagreement is itself not conducive to the [peace] process,” Netanyahu said. “We have disagreement. We cannot at every stage of this agreement engage in cataclysmic predictions and talk of crisis and violence.” Netanyahu urged the sides to focus instead on fulfilling their obligations under the signed accords. On Wednesday, Netanyahu went further in his condemnation of the Palestinian criticisms. “I’m getting fed up with the idea that everything we do is a violation of the agreement, and everything the Palestinians say is in compliance with the agreement,” he said at a news conference. “If they think they can foment violence and increased tensions,” he added, “we’re not going to play that game.” Russia had irked Israel when it supported a U.N. Security Council resolution, vetoed by the United States last Friday, criticizing the decision to build the new neighborhood. Netanyahu began Tuesday by meeting with members of Moscow’s Jewish community at the city’s Choral Synagogue. Thousands of Jews packed the synagogue’s main hall and gave the Israeli premier a standing ovation. Passing through the crowd that came to greet him, Netanyahu noticed someone holding a box of matzot. “Not so long ago, to bake matzot, to have matzot at home, to eat matzot, was considered a crime in the Soviet Union,” Netanyahu said, referring to the profound changes that have occurred in the life of Russian Jews since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Netanyahu said that rabbis and teachers of religion had “saved the Jewish tradition in Soviet Russia,” singling out the underground religious activities of the Lubavitch movement during the Communist era. The premier’s visit to Russia’s largest synagogue appeared to have strong personal meaning for some of those who saw him. Alexei, a 16-year-old student at a Moscow Jewish school, said that his grandfather still cherishes the memory of meeting the then-Israeli ambassador to Moscow, Golda Meir, at the Choral Synagogue almost 50 years ago. “He often says that the meeting in 1948 had influenced his entire life,” said Alexei. “I will also long have memories about meeting the Israeli prime minister in the same synagogue.” Before returning to Israel on Wednesday, Netanyahu visited St. Petersburg, where he was received by the city’s governor, Vladimir Yakovlev. He also visited the Hermitage Museum and the summer palace of the czars, located at a site close to the nation’s former imperial capital.