MOSCOW, Sept. 9 (JTA) — When Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, visited Moscow in 1994, he was widely booed by a group of Russian Jews who considered him a traitor for signing peace accords with the Palestinians.
The protesters even tried to hurl rotten tomatoes at Rabin.
But when current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon entered the hall of the brand-new Lubavitch-run JCC in Moscow last week, security guards did not have to worry about rotten tomatoes. As Sharon moved through the 1,000-strong crowd to the strains of “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem” sung by a children’s choir, he found widespread sympathy.
“He is the right man; he knows what should be done,” said Valery Yarov, a resident of a small town in the Ural Mountain region.
Grandfather of a 14-year-old who was the youngest victim of the Tel Aviv disco bombing in June, Yarov was one of dozens of Jewish activists from across the former Soviet Union who came to Moscow to meet with Sharon during his three-day visit to Russia last week.
If anything, many Russian Jews would prefer Sharon to take a more hard-line stance toward the Palestinian uprising.
“I told him, ‘What are you waiting for, strike the Palestinians, strike them right now as strongly as possible.’ He looked at me, and I saw that he understands what should be done, but also knows that he can’t do that,” said Mikhail Kunin, a professor of chemistry at a Moscow university, who managed to shake hands with Sharon and exchange a few words with the Israeli prime minister after the meeting.
Despite the violence in Israel, Sharon emphasized that Russian Jews should move to the Jewish state.
“I have come to tell you, make aliyah yourselves, or send your children to study in Israel, we need you,” Sharon said.
Apparently realizing that Jews aren’t scrambling for exit visas as they did in the past, however, Sharon added, “I know that your life here is good and free, thanks to President Putin, but don’t get accustomed to that.”
Sharon did not lose any opportunity to praise Putin for his relative friendship toward Israel and his relations with the Russian Jewish community.
“I am very satisfied with the visit,” Sharon told JTA. “We have been received with great friendliness.”
Aside from the signing of some minor economic agreements, the main result of the visit seemed to be the strengthening of Sharon’s personal connection with Putin. Sharon also held rather unproductive talks with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Indeed, during Sharon’s visit, Russia announced it would soon send a team to Iran to assemble at least one more nuclear reactor there. Israel and the United States believe the nuclear technology Russia shares with Tehran may help Iran produce nuclear weapons.
Russian analysts claimed Israel wants Russia to increase its involvement in the Middle East as a co-sponsor of the peace process. If true, the Israelis would seem to be betting on two things.
The first is the resemblance between the terror threat Russia faces from Chechen Muslims and the one Israel faces from Palestinians, a point Sharon likes to stress.
The second is the presence of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, many of whom hold dual Russian and Israeli citizenship. Putin repeatedly has said he believes Russia needs to defend these citizens from Islamic terrorism.
At the same time, even if Putin may feel sympathy for Israel, many in the Russian foreign and defense ministries maintain their traditional pro-Arab stance.
According to a Moscow-based Jewish political analyst, Dmitry Pinsker, a significant part of the Russian political establishment still clings to Soviet anti-Zionist attitudes colored by an oft-hidden — and sometimes not-so-hidden — anti-Semitism.