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Israeli ties warm with Russia, Turkey


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his office in Jerusalem on May 1. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/BP Images)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his office in Jerusalem on May 1. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/BP Images)

JERUSALEM, May 3 (JTA) — On their recent groundbreaking visits to Jerusalem, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both offered their countries’ services as “honest brokers” in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Pundits suggested that neither leader was entirely sincere and primarily sought an international achievement to prop up his falling popularity at home. In any case, Israel and the United States are likely to continue to maintain an American monopoly on the nuts and bolts of Middle East peacemaking. Still, analysts say, the talk of Turkish and especially Russian mediation could have a significant outcome. It could spur President Bush into appointing a high-ranking Middle Eastern peace envoy. A number of former U.S. officials, including a former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, insist a dedicated envoy is vital if there is to be real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Though Israeli leaders tend to be dismissive of major Russian- or Turkish-sponsored mediation, they acknowledge that Israel has much to gain by nurturing ties with both countries, which could help meet Israel’s long-term interests. Israel has a major strategic interest in curbing Russian sales of arms and technology to potential enemies like Syria and Iran; it has a flourishing military relationship with Turkey; and in another major strategic departure, it wants to import natural gas from Russia through Turkey via a still-to-be-laid underwater gas pipeline. Then, too, the more ties are strengthened, the greater the chances that Russia or Turkey will be allowed to play a mediating role in peace diplomacy. In making his case for Russian mediation, Putin argued that it could serve as a counterweight to a U.S. Middle East policy that he described as destabilizing and risky. President Bush’s efforts to foment democracy in the Arab world could encourage such radical Islamicists as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, possibly even sweeping them to power, Putin maintained. Israel is worried by Russian steps to resume arms sales to such former Arab clients as Syria and the Palestinians. To win Israeli confidence, Putin promised that as long as he is president, Russia would do nothing to harm Israel. Putin said he had intervened to cancel a deal brokered by the Russian military to sell long-range missiles to Syria “because they could have threatened Israel.” The Anti-Defamation League noted both positive and negative aspects of Putin’s visit. “At a time when efforts to depict Israel as an outlaw state continue in many circles,” the ADL noted in an analysis, the image of a Kremlin leader appearing at the Western Wall “is one more powerful reversal of historic enmity and denial.” Yet the ADL noted that “there were troubling elements that cannot be obscured,” such as Russia’s surprise invitation to hold an international conference in Moscow on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — the “mischief-making” idea was summarily shot down by Israel and the United States, but could resurface — and Russia’s insistence on selling arms to Israel’s enemies. As for the Turks, Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who served as a diplomat in Ankara, says he’s convinced they can play a constructive role on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, says he knows Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas well and can be helpful. For now, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon isn’t interested in that kind of Turkish help. Instead, he suggested that Erdogan help the Palestinians rebuild their economy, especially in the fields of housing, water and tourism. Where both Putin and Erdogan did make progress was on the issue of global terrorism. Sharon agreed to set up direct hotlines to Putin’s and Erdogan’s offices for the speedy exchange of intelligence information. Israel now has such arrangements only with the United States and Britain. Sharon showed Putin that many of the weapons Israel intercepted in January 2002 on a weapons ship bound from Iran to the Palestinian Authority were made in Russia. Putin, who says anti-aircraft missiles Russia wants to sell to Syria couldn’t possibly make their way into terrorists’ hands, urged Sharon to inform him of any future seepage of Russian weapons to third parties so that he can deal with the offenders. The main strategic issue in the talks with Putin was how to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. The Russians want to continue supplying Iran with nuclear technologies but say they don’t want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. They square the circle by proposing the establishment of an effective international regime for monitoring Iran’s nuclear programs. If the Iranians object, Putin told Sharon, Russia would be prepared to bring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions on Iran. Perhaps the most important outcome of the two visits was the progress made on the supply of Russian natural gas to Israel via Turkey. In a major modernization program, Israel plans to use natural gas to produce cheaper electricity. At present, Israeli gas comes from offshore deposits. An agreement for the supply of gas from Egypt is due to be signed soon, and Russian gas would be a strategic backup. Even absent dramatic breakthroughs, however, the Putin and Erdogan visits highlighted two major Israeli foreign policy goals: • dialogue with Russia, once the major supplier of arms to Israel’s enemies, on curbing the supply of potentially threatening weapons; and • the development over time, even after peace is achieved with the Arab world, of a non-Arab regional bloc, which could include such countries as Turkey, Greece and even Iran. In an ideal world, Israel would like to see the United States as its main strategic partner, the European Union as its major trading partner, Russia as a truly neutral player and Turkey as a partner in a wider regional alliance. In a slow, accretive way, the visits of Putin and Erdogan may have helped bring those goals a little closer.