MOSCOW, Feb. 17 (JTA) — Russia may not be Israel’s closest ally when it comes to Arab-Israeli relations. But Russia recently earned Israel’s praise when it sided with the United States, European Union members and dozens of other nations in opposing the upcoming hearings on the legality of Israel’s West Bank security barrier at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. With the Feb. 23 hearings around the corner, Israeli Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert visited Moscow last week to discuss Russia’s positions on Middle East issues and explain Israel’s position on the security fence and its value in preventing terrorist attacks. “We talked about the fence and spent over two hours in a broad discussion,” Olmert told reporters last Friday after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. “I was encouraged by his repeated attitude about the fence: that the issue of the fence is not a legal issue but a political issue,” Olmert said. “The Russian position as it was sent to the International Court is closer to the Israeli position than it was before.” Olmert said Russia’s stance on the hearings was quite encouraging — and a pleasant surprise. Observers say Moscow’s position on The Hague hearings on the fence reflect a longtime split between the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry on Middle East-related issues. “Many here recognize that the Kremlin is generally much more pro-Israel than the Foreign Ministry,” said Grigoriy Melamedov, a Moscow-based expert on the Middle East. Moscow may have decided to side with Israel on the issue of The Hague hearings to make up for earlier moves perceived as pro-Palestinian — including Russia’s votes against Israel’s interests at the United Nations, Melamedov said. Furthermore, Melamedov noted, “Moscow has general dislike toward European international institutes” — which have been critical of Russia for its handling of the situation in Chechnya. With its long history of ties with the region’s Arab and Palestinian leaders, Russia continues to bill itself as a co-sponsor of Middle East peace efforts Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said last Friday that Moscow’s “intensive contacts with Israel, as well as with Palestinians, Arab countries and all other interested parties are aimed at normalizing the situation in the region as soon as possible and bringing the Arab-Israeli conflict in the course of political decisions.” As has become routine in Russian diplomacy, Olmert came to Moscow hours after a major Arab official held his own round of discussions in the Russian capital. Earlier in the week, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher was in town to meet with his Russian counterpart. Olmert denied that his visit was timed to take place after Muasher’s, telling reporters it had been planned long before and was not part of any “diplomatic conspiracy.” Olmert tried to dispel ongoing Russian reservations about Israeli’s security fence by telling Ivanov that the barrier would not predetermine a future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. The visit by Olmert — minister of trade and industry and a deputy prime minister — also was packed with meetings aimed at boosting economic ties between Israel and Russia. The trade volume between the two countries topped $1 billion in 2003 — an impressive number compared with the $12 million in 1991 that constituted trade between the two nations, which then were just beginning to establish full-fledged relations. But the figure today could be even higher, a member of the Israeli diplomatic delegation visiting Moscow told JTA. The official said current trade relations still could be expanded. A delegation of 80 Israeli businessmen, headed by the president of the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange, Shmuel Schnitzer, came with Olmert to Moscow to promote Israeli economic interests in Russia, especially in the diamond, high-tech and telecommunications sectors. Economic themes dominated other parts of Olmert’s two-day visit to Moscow, which also included talks with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and the country’s telecommunications and information minister, Leonid Reiman.
Israeli officials visit Moscow