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Putin Becomes First Russian Leader to Visit Israel, but Tensions Remain

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After months of talking tough about Russia’s right to help Iran and Syria, President Vladimir Putin sought to mend fences a bit with a landmark visit to Israel. Putin on Wednesday became the first Kremlin leader to set foot in Israel, making a series of high-profile appearances aimed at presenting an image as a friend of the Jewish state and an honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

“Until not long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a Russian head of state making an official visit to Israel,” Putin said Thursday after being received by Israeli President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem. “This is the best sign that things have changed.”

In talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Putin agreed to establish a task force to share information on terrorism and to press the fight against anti-Semitism in Russia, causes especially dear to some 1 million Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

“I am sure this meeting will deepen the relations between Israel and Russia,” Sharon said.

Yet the visit was not without undertones of tension, caused by Russia’s renewed support for Israel’s archenemies, Iran and Syria.

The Soviet Union long was the benefactor of states and groups that attacked Israel both physically and diplomatically, but Moscow reduced its ties with radical Arab regimes after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, however, Putin increasingly has steered Russia on a course that again may conflict with Israeli and American interests in the Middle East.

Russia is offering technical support to Iran’s nuclear program; until now, Moscow has shrugged off allegations that Iran’s reactors are intended to produce nuclear weapons, not just electricity. But Putin took a slightly more conciliatory approach to Israel’s concerns.

The Russian president called on Iran to “abandon all technology to create a full nuclear cycle and also not obstruct their nuclear sites from international control.”

He also voiced dissatisfaction with a compromise deal under which Tehran agreed to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia that otherwise could be used for a weapons program.

But Putin stood firm on the Russian sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Israeli officials worry that the weapons could find their way to Syria’s proxy militia in southern Lebanon, to Hezbollah or even to Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Putin promised to do everything possible to stop such proliferation, but spoke of the sale to Damascus as a bilateral matter with no impact on Israel’s defenses.

“The missiles we are providing to Syria are short-range anti-aircraft missiles that cannot reach Israeli territory,” he told Israeli reporters. “To come within their range, you would have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?”

Israeli officials, however, are skeptical about Russian assurances that Syria won’t transfer the missiles to terrorist groups.

Russia also wants to sell armored personnel carriers to the Palestinian Authority security services. Noting that members of the P.A. forces frequently have joined with terrorist groups attacking Israel, Israeli officials said they would not allow the vehicles to reach the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Though a member of the international “Quartet” driving the “road map” peace plan — other members are the United States, the United Nations and the European Union — Russia largely has taken a back seat in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Signaling that he wanted to change that, Putin surprised Israeli officials just before he arrived by proposing that Moscow host a peace summit this fall.

The Palestinian Authority, which Putin was scheduled to visit Friday, jumped at the offer. But Israeli officials were cool, seeing a summit as something that could disrupt the road-map time line. The United States echoed the sentiments.

“We believe there will be an appropriate time for an international conference, but we are not at that stage now and I don’t expect that we will be there by the fall,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Despite his efforts against anti-Semitism, Putin has taken flak for championing the prosecution of Russian oligarchs — many of them Jewish — who are seen as challenging his rule.

In Jerusalem, the Russian president went out of his way — literally — in what appeared to be an effort to offset this image.

Shortly after arriving Wednesday, Putin toured Jerusalem’s Old City. The Western Wall was not originally on the itinerary; Russian officials said this was for fear of offending Muslims, whose Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount was not scheduled to be part of the visit either.

At the last minute, however, Putin redirected his entourage to the Western Wall Plaza. To the consternation of his guards, he got out there for a quick look around.

Putin also found time to see the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and speak to Russian immigrants who had served in the Soviet military, contacts seen as especially significant given the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

“The Jewish people and the State of Israel will never forget how the Soviet Union liberated the concentration camps,” Sharon told Putin. “You are among friends.”

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