By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 29, 2005
JERUSALEM, April 28 -- President Vladimir Putin, making the first visit to Israel by a Russian leader, on Thursday defended his country's plans to sell arms to Syria and participate in the construction of an Iranian nuclear reactor. Neither project is a threat to Israel, he said.
During a day that vacillated between criticism and platitudes by Putin and his hosts, Israeli officials rebuffed the Russian president's proposal for a Middle East peace summit in Moscow as premature and urged him to abort the proposed sale of armored personnel carriers to the Palestinian Authority.
Despite the disagreements, both Putin and Israeli leaders described the historic visit as a milestone in relations between two Cold War enemies. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nearly 1 million Jews have migrated from its republics to Israel.
"Not long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a visit by the Russian head of state to Israel," Putin said in a news conference with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, the official host. "It is a good sign."
Putin is scheduled to meet with Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday. His trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is designed to reinvigorate Russia's political role in the Middle East. Russia, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, is a member of the quartet of nations and organizations working to facilitate a Middle East peace process.
Both Israel and the United States opposed Putin's suggestion that a peace summit be held in Moscow this fall, though the proposal was embraced by Palestinian leaders and Egypt.
Shrugging off Israeli security concerns, which prompted police to seal off large parts of Jerusalem during his visit, Putin and his entourage made a midnight visit Wednesday to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On Thursday, Putin visited Israel's new Holocaust museum after his meetings with Katsav and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In recent years, business and trade relations between Russia and Israel have warmed significantly, but Israeli officials say they are alarmed by recent agreements between Putin and two of Israel's nearby enemies, Syria and Iran.
Russia plans to sell short-range air defense missiles to Syria. The truck-mounted system would have a range of three miles or less, according to military analysts. Israeli leaders have said they are concerned the weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists. The State Department also opposes the sale to Syria, which it categorizes as a terrorist state.
"There are disagreements between the Russian president and myself, despite the steps that the president has taken to minimize the dangers," Katsav said at a news conference.
"I am aware of Israel's concerns regarding the possibility that the missiles will reach the hands of terror organizations in Lebanon," Putin said. "However, these concerns are groundless. . . . The missiles we sold to Syria are short-range antiaircraft missiles. They do not threaten Israeli territory. For these missiles to hit you, you will need to enter Syrian territory."
In October 2003, Israeli jets bombed a target that the military described as a training camp for Palestinian militants in Syria, about 10 miles from Damascus, the capital, after a suicide bomber killed 19 people in the Israeli port city of Haifa. Israel conducted a similar bombing raid in Syria in 1977.
Putin also defended Russia's participation in the construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran and said it had imposed safeguards to ensure that its materials were not used for weapons production. Putin reiterated warnings that the Iranians should open their nuclear sites to international monitoring and "abandon all technology to create a full nuclear cycle" for weapons production.
Researcher Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.