News Analysis: is the Israeli Government Flirting with Russia to Gain Potential Votes?

Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon is flirting with Russia, with the seeming acquiescence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and to the mounting chagrin of the United States.

Sharon’s visit to Moscow this week comes as the United States and its NATO allies are continuing their campaign against Russia’s traditional ally, Serbia.

The visit has critics charging that America’s own intimate ally, Israel, has turned its back on Washington at a time of war.

Those mystified by Sharon’s Moscow trip got a hint of what was taking place when he acknowledged to an American reporter the truth behind the rampant suspicions in Israel that this policy departure on Russia is linked to the imminent Israeli elections.

The former general, who in 1973 was instrumental in founding the Likud bloc, told The New York Times in an interview that he believed Likud could win the Israeli election next month if just 3 percent more of the immigrant community from the former Soviet Union would vote for its prime ministerial candidate, Netanyahu.

Indeed, many of these immigrants would be pleased at the sight of a warming relationship between their new country and their former Russian homeland, for which they still harbor emotional and, in some cases, business ties.

The first hint that something was afoot came last month, when, with NATO troops in action against the Serbs, Israel among all Western nations remained curiously reticent in its expressions of solidarity with its patron and friend, the United States.

Netanyahu eventually made the requisite statements of support — but only after eyebrows had been raised at home and in Washington over his obvious reluctance to speak out in favor of the NATO strikes in Yugoslavia.

But Sharon left people on both sides of the Atlantic gasping when he not only failed to side with America, but actually criticized the NATO operation, which is designed to end the Serbs’ brutal campaign against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Sharon spoke of the need for a negotiated solution, as though the two sides to the conflict were equally at fault.

He hinted that the Kosovar Muslims were linked to nations and organizations hostile to Israel.

He also focused on Holocaust-era memories of Balkan collaboration with the Nazis — when the Serbs stood out for their brave resistance to the Germans.

He spoke of the dangers of a Kosovar state becoming a hotbed of Islamic terrorism that could rattle Europe for years to come.

He spoke of the dangerous precedent — for Israel — of outside powers intervening by force in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, when a part of its populace raises separatist demands.

And he spoke, too, of the need for Israel to improve its ties with the Serbs’ longtime friend — Russia.

Further upsetting his critics, Sharon’s comments, and subsequent visit, come at a time when Russia has been experiencing increased anti-Semitism, much of it prompted by the nation’s ongoing economic crisis.

Observers who failed to notice that something new and unusual might be happening in the corridors of power in Jerusalem got another clue when Netanyahu appeared to suggest to a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that the policy of economic sanctions against Russian firms, a means of curbing its supply of nuclear technology to Iran, might be replaced by an incentive-based approach.

The premier’s aides later vigorously denied that Netanyahu had urged a six- month moratorium on sanctions. Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, endorsed the denials.

But, to some observers, something seemed suspicious, and corroboration was not long in coming.

Last weekend in Washington, U.S. officials vented their anger when they realized that their Israeli guest — Sharon — was planning to fly from the U.S. capital to Moscow.

This came on the same weekend that Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s aides were busily denying their leader’s apparent threat to re-target Russia’s nuclear missiles at the NATO countries.

U.S. officials, for their part, denied Sharon’s claims that his visit to Russia, and his overtures to the Kremlin, were all coordinated with Washington.

The same denial, in event blunter terms, was delivered by the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Martin Indyk, visiting Israel this week as the head of a team of U.S. officials for joint strategic talks with the Israelis.

Along with voicing their anger over Sharon’s visit, U.S. officials also criticized Israeli settlement activity.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, meeting with Sharon last Friday, urged Israel to refrain from expanding settlements.

And Indyk, during a meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday, also criticized Israeli settlement activity, reiterating American concerns that it could hamper peace efforts with the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, there was a report that Sharon’s Moscow visit had an added dimension.

The veteran defense editor of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Ze’ev Schiff, reported that Sharon was proposing to the Russians that they mediate a deal between Israel and Syria for the immediate withdrawal — before the elections – - of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

Underscoring the potential electoral appeal of such a dramatic move, yet another Israeli soldier was killed Monday in southern Lebanon by a Hezbollah roadside bomb.

Sgt. Noam Barnea, 21, was buried Tuesday at a military cemetery.

Israel’s Security Cabinet met Monday night in Jerusalem to discuss the nation’s options in the face of mounting military casualties in southern Lebanon. Some Israeli media reported that Israel is starting to reduce its troop presence in Lebanon to reduce casualties.

All this came just as Sharon was reportedly making his case about Lebanon to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and other top policy-makers in Moscow.

Sharon, who had stated he was visiting Moscow to press Russian officials to block the flow of weapons technology to Iran, denied the Ha’aretz report.

At the same time, though, he asserted that Russia is “returning” to the Middle East as a player and that Israel needs to develop a “more balanced” policy toward Moscow.

Interestingly, Syria’s President Hafez Assad, who had scheduled his own visit to Moscow this week, canceled at the last moment. Some analysts suggested that he did not want his presence in the Russian capital together with the Israeli minister to make Sharon’s reported bid for Russian mediation with Damascus too transparent.

The stakes, then, are no longer merely 3 percent of Israel’s Russian immigrant vote.

They also involve a deal on Lebanon that could be an election winner for Likud.

At the same time, however, the repercussions for Israel’s friendship with the United States and for its overall strategic standing could be far-reaching indeed.

American officials were nonplused when it emerged that Israeli ministers, senior officials and top army brass were as ignorant, shocked and dismayed as they themselves were over Sharon’s Russian initiative. Or, at least, this was the way the Israelis made it seem.

The suspicion in the American camp, and among the opposition parties in Israel, is that Netanyahu is fully behind Sharon’s outreach to Moscow — this despite the premier’s assertions that Sharon’s statements about Serbia and the NATO strikes are his “private” opinions.

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