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What’s behind Putin’s visit to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, meets with Russian President Vladmir Putin in September 2002 at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left, meets with Russian President Vladmir Putin in September 2002 at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

MOSCOW, April 21 (JTA) — Russian arms sales to Syria are expected to be on the front burner when Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a historic visit to Israel next week. Analysts say Putin’s personal religious views may be another factor motivating him to make the April 27-28 visit. Putin will hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on issues affecting the Middle East peace process, including cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem on anti-terror and security issues, Russian participation in Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s recently announced arms sales to Syria. Israel fears that the sale of Russian missiles to Syria can shake the balance of power in the region, especially if some of the weapons transferred to Damascus end up in the hands of such Syrian-sponsored terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or Palestinian groups in the West Bank. Official sources in Russia have indicated that the visit is an attempt to demonstrate that relations between Moscow and Jerusalem remain stable despite the arms sales and recent high-profile cases of Russian anti-Semitism that seemed to strain the overall positive nature of Israeli-Russian relations in recent years. Those relations have improved greatly in the 15 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Though Putin is paying his first official visit to Israel as president, Sharon has visited Moscow three times since taking office in 2001. Putin also will visit Palestinian territory and Egypt during his visit to the region. Russia is a member of the diplomatic “Quartet” of mediators that sponsored the “road map” peace plan, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Putin’s trip comes at the invitation of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who is said to have invited the Russian president while the two leaders were in Poland in January to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Katsav is expected to visit Moscow on May 9, along with many other world leaders who will honor Russia’s role in the victory over Nazism in World War II. But days before his visit, Putin irritated Israeli officials when he said in Moscow this week that after the sale of Russian Igla missiles to Damascus, “Israeli aircraft will no longer be flying” over the palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israeli planes once buzzed Assad’s palace as a warning after a terrorist attack carried out by Palestinian groups with Syrian backing. Russia insists that its missile sale to Syria — the first such deal between Russia and an Arab nation in several years — won’t harm Israeli interests or shake the strategic balance in the Middle East. Russia says the missiles, which are favored by terrorists because they are portable and can be fired from the shoulder at passenger aircraft and other soft targets, will be mounted on trucks and thus are less of a threat. A leading Russian military analyst, describing the arms sale as primarily an economic venture, said its significance should not be overestimated. “Russia has lost its ability and to a large extent its interest to influence developments in the region,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent analyst in Moscow. “Yes, we do sell weapons to Syria and the Arabs, but not because we have some big game in the region to play,” he said. “We could sell Russian weapons to Israel as well — only Israel doesn’t seem to be interested in Russian weapons.” Felgenhauer said Putin personally harbors no anti-Semitic feelings and always has had a certain curiosity about the Jewish state. Putin visited Israel in 1996 and 1997, before he was elected president of Russia. Another leading analyst noted that the visit is taking place on the eve of the Russian Orthodox Easter, which falls this year on May 1. Putin is believed to be a devout Orthodox Christian, and he has made several pilgrimages to sites in Russia regarded as holy by Russian Christians. The real purpose of Putin’s visit is to make a pilgrimage to holy sites on the eve of Easter, an old and important tradition for Eastern Orthodox, Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies, a Moscow think tank, told JTA. “Putin is going to pray at some of the holiest sites for Russian Christians, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem,” Satanovsky said. “He has a team that goes with him who will be dealing with the issues of Syria and Iran” during the visit, “but his personal interest is different,” Satanovsky said. He added that the visit bodes well for Russian-Israeli cooperation. “The fact that the visit is taking place against the backdrop of developments that many see as straining bilateral ties is good news by itself,” Satanovsky said.

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