Nisan 29, 5765
Russian President Vladimir Putin
arrived last night in Israel on a historic, first-time visit by a Russian
or Soviet leader to Israel. The state visit, however, was overshadowed by
two diplomatic contretemps: an Israeli (and American) rejection of his
proposal for an international conference on the Middle East this fall, and
Israeli objections to his plans to sell armored troop carriers to the
Palestinian Authority and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
A government source said last night that Israel would not allow the troop carriers promised to the Palestinian Authority into the country. "First let's see some steps toward peace and then it will be possible to strengthen the Palestinian security forces, which are meanwhile taking part in fighting against us," the source said. "The entry of any weapons to the territories requires our agreement and we do not want to see armored vehicles pitted against us."
The source said that if Putin raises the issue of the armored carriers, he will be told that "now is not the time" and it would be best to postpone any further discussion of it.
Israel is also against the Russian sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
While President Moshe Katsav is the official host of the 40-hour visit, Putin will be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's guest at a luncheon today, where they will discuss political issues. Sharon will try to persuade his guest to cancel the missile sale, on the grounds they could filter through to one of the terror organizations based in Syria. Putin has said the missiles are meant to prevent low-flying aircraft from buzzing Syrian presidential palaces, a clear reference to Israeli air force "messages" delivered to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Putin's proposal for an international conference on the Middle East was raised in Cairo at his press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and was immediately shot down by "government sources" in Israel and by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who said, "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."
Government sources in Jerusalem made clear that they would listen to Putin's proposal - which he said would be defined as a gathering of the Quartet (the U.S., Russian, EU and UN committee that is meant to shepherd the sides through the road map) - if he puts it to them today during his luncheon meeting with Sharon. But Israel's position is that the only political course is that laid out in the road map, and that the only foreign power Israel will allow to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, is the U.S. The road map, said government sources, calls for an international conference in the second stage, but "first we have to execute the first stage, and that is our understanding with the U.S."
Despite those differences, Sharon and Putin will be able to reach understandings on the fight against anti-Semitism, cooperation in the war against terror, a natural gas purchase Israel is considering, space research, and commerce and investments. It is not clear if Putin, who surprised Israel and his own aides in March with the announcement he was coming to Israel, will raise the issue of Jewish "oligarchs" residing in Israel whom he wants to see stand trial in Russia.
Putin's itinerary is to include visits to the Holy Sepulchre, the Russian Orthodox Church in Gethsemane, and possibly a visit to the Western Wall, as well as a visit to Yad Vashem and a meeting with World War II Red Army veterans living in Israel. He was to spend this morning at the President's Residence, where he is to present a sculpture by a famous Georgian artist depicting concentration camp victims, and issue a joint declaration with President Katsav. The declaration is expected to cover the history of Russian-Israeli relations (including the quick USSR recognition of the Jewish state) and the common struggle against anti-Semitism and terror.
Putin will lunch with Sharon, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and spend the afternoon at Yad Vashem and meeting with the veterans. This evening, President Katsav is due to host a state dinner for his guest and entourage, which includes government ministers and Russian businessmen.
The Russian president is scheduled to leave the country tomorrow after a visit to Ramallah where he will meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who welcomed his proposed peace conference. Putin was said to be planning to announce the delivery of the armored troop carriers at that Ramallah meeting, but Israel's sudden opposition to the sale could sour that, unless Sharon changes his mind today on the issue.
Jerusalemites, in any case, were warned yesterday that traffic patterns in the city would be disrupted for the duration of the Putin visit, as tight security measures were imposed on the capital.