MOSCOW, Oct. 1 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit this week shows the growing seriousness of Israel-Russia relations, Jewish observers here said. “After Sept. 11, and with Russia moving closer to G-8 membership, this visit is less of a courtesy trip like before and more of a real political visit,” said Mikhail Chlenov, president of a Jewish umbrella group called the Va’ad. He was referring to the progress Moscow has made over the last year toward acquiring full membership in a consortium of industrialized nations. Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress and a leading analyst of Middle Eastern issues, went even further. The scope of the issues Sharon discussed in Moscow allows one to talk of a “real breakthrough” in bilateral relations, Satanovsky said. “The Kremlin hears, understand and shares many of Israel’s concerns about security and about Iraq,” Satanovsky said. “In that sense we are allies without any doubt.” Security concerns topped Sharon’s agenda during two days of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, including Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II. Putin focused on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Sharon played up the issue of Islamic terrorism and extremism as major threats for both Israel and Russia, which has been accused of brutality in its long-running war with Muslim separatists in Chechnya. In an attempt to hammer the point home, Sharon was accompanied to Moscow by three Russian-born 16-year-olds who were among the victims of a June 2001 bombing at a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 people, most of them teen-agers born in the former Soviet Union. Alex Nalimov lost two sisters in the attack. Faik Kuliev and Emma Skalishevskaya were wounded. They were included in the delegation to show the Russian public the importance of fighting terrorism. “People in Russia do not understand that if the Israeli army did not conduct operations on the territory of the Palestinian Authority, we would have 10 terrorist attacks every day,” Kuliev told reporters. The only surprise was that the talks lasted for three-and-a-half hours — instead of the planned 90 minutes — and ended with Putin treating his guest to a kosher lunch with Israeli wine, which Sharon said he hadn’t expected. Putin welcomed Israel’s decision to lift its siege of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters and repeated calls for Israeli troops to leave Palestinian cities. “We condemn terrorism in all its forms, and we welcome your decision to lift the siege,” Putin told Sharon in the Kremlin. Putin said Russia supports the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition and views Israel as an important member of the alliance. Sharon emphasized that the two countries are natural allies against “the serious threat of extremist Islam.” Israeli officials tried to convince Moscow to approve a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq, with which Moscow has good relations. Both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov restated their calls for of the use of diplomacy and U.N. instruments to resolve the standoff with Baghdad. Sharon shared his concerns about alleged Iraqi and Iranian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Israeli officials believe the technology for such arms comes from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, with or without official sanction from Moscow. A Moscow daily reported that the Israeli delegation — which included the outgoing head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy — brought files allegedly proving links between Palestinian militants and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Speaking to leaders of the Russian Jewish community Monday night, Sharon praised Putin for his understanding of Israel’s security concerns and said Putin shows considerable concern for the welfare of Russian-born Israelis. Sharon said Putin has contacted him after terrorist attacks in Israel to check if there were Russian-sounding names among the victims. But despite a considerable improvement over the last decade in its relations with Israel, the Kremlin has maintained its traditional support for the Palestinian cause. Russia still misses no opportunity to express its solidarity with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, often releases pro-Palestinian statements to the media and regularly backs anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N. Security Council. Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, was due to visit Moscow this week for talks. Some observers believe a subtext of Sharon’s trip was an appeal for the votes of Russian Israelis — about one-sixth of Israel’s population — whose electoral sympathies may decide the next election. “Ariel Sharon Came For Russian Votes,” said a headline in the Monday edition of Kommersant, a leading Moscow business daily newspaper. Many Russian-speaking households in Israel watch Russia’s three leading television channels via satellite. A television executive told JTA that at least one of the channels conducted “intense consultations” with Israelis in preparation for Sharon’s visit. On most previous trips to Moscow, Israeli prime ministers, including Sharon himself, chose to address a larger Jewish crowd at the Choral Synagogue. This time, because of security concerns and other reasons, he spoke at the Marriott Grand Hotel, and the crowd was limited to a few hundred Jewish activists and members of the business and cultural elites. Sharon spoke for about an hour of his talks with Putin. He concluded his address with a traditional call to Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel “without any delay” — though few are likely to do so, given the security situation in Israel.
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