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Sharon Tells Russian Jews to Move to Israel, but Words Fall on Deaf Ears

November 5, 2003
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Ariel Sharon brought a message to Russian Jews when he visited this week: Israel needs you.

But for some Russian Jewish leaders, the message seemed a bit out of step with the times.

During the visit, Sharon’s third here since he became Israel’s prime minister, Sharon met with President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials for talks covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, international terrorism, Iran’s nuclear program and the postwar reconstruction of Iraq.

Sharon and Putin appeared to get along well. Putin acknowledged Israel’s desire for peace, and Sharon called Putin a friend of Israel and invited him to visit the Jewish state.

But Sharon’s message to 200 Russian Jewish leaders and tycoons at Moscow’s Marriott Grand Hotel got a mixed reaction.

Sharon opened his speech with an emotional call for Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel.

“Make aliyah to Israel,” Sharon said twice, urging listeners to remember that part of his speech. He also said that those who were not ready to make the move themselves could send their children to study in Israel.

Some of those at the meeting said that, beyond the importance of aliyah, they expected Sharon to mention the successes and needs of the Russian Jewish community — and that he didn’t touch any of these topics.

“The audience was expecting to hear something different, not only slogans,” said Yuriy Raskin, executive director of the Russian Jewish Congress, which brought 90 community and business leaders to the meeting with Sharon. About the same number of guests were invited to the meeting through the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, another umbrella organization.

“To the best of its ability, the Jewish community of Russia is demonstrating its solidarity with the people of Israel,” Raskin said. “But what we heard sent us back to the early 1990s.”

During the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Jews moved to Israel from Russia and the other former republics of the Soviet Union. In the past few years, that aliyah has slowed considerably.

“Nothing was said about how, in the view of the prime minister, those who decided to stay in Russia could help Israel,” Raskin said. “Many people told me they felt it was a serious mistake. This was quite unexpected.”

Sharon also referred to a split in the Russian Jewish community, saying it needs to be united “from within” in order to “take over all our enemies.”

Some attendees said it appeared Sharon was less interested in courting Russian Jews than he had been on previous visits.

A top Russian business executive who attended the meeting but did not want to be mentioned by name said, “Israel is no longer interested in Russian Jewry’s political and financial resources, but is only interested in the aliyah numbers.”

Others at the meeting disagreed.

“I don’t think there was anything in the speech that should be taken as an offense” to Russian Jews, said Tankred Golenpolsky, founder and editor of the International Jewish Gazette in Moscow. “Sharon is drawn so much into the current difficult situation in Israel that there was no need to repeat things that go without saying.”

In his speech to the Jewish community leaders, Sharon preferred not to discuss details of his talk several hours earlier with Putin.

Experts agreed that the three-hour meeting with Putin and the talks with Sharon’s Russian counterpart, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov were successful, and foretold closer cooperation and better understanding between Moscow and Jerusalem.

The annual volume of bilateral trade between the countries has soared in the past decade and now exceeds $1 billion, possibly reaching $1.3 billion by the end of the year, Kasyanov said.

Putin told Sharon that the recent arrest of the Yukos oil company’s top manager — a prominent Jew — was not motivated by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s ethnic background.

Putin also told Sharon that Moscow would like to play an active role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Responding to Israeli concerns, Putin promised to review a Russian proposal to make the U.N. Security Council the primary address for the “road map” peace plan. Israel considers the United Nations biased toward the Palestinians, and feels more comfortable letting the United States drive the process.

Putin also indicated that Russia would review its traditional alliance with Arab countries in the United Nations. He also said he would press Syria to rein in Hezbollah, Damascus’ proxy in Lebanon, according to media reports.

Russia’s promise to review its stand on the road map is important, Golenpolsky said.

“It still remains an open question how it will be reviewed, but the fact that Putin heard and responded to Sharon’s concern may well be the most important outcome of this visit,” he said.

Putin’s support for Israel appears to be shared by the broader Russian population. A poll conducted this week by a popular Moscow radio station showed that the majority of Russians are sympathetic toward Israel and believe cooperation with the Jewish state benefits Russia.

Over 72 percent of almost 3,000 listeners who called in to the Echo Moskvy radio station during a five-minute telephone poll on Monday said Russia should be cooperating with Sharon rather than with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

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