The 5-Minute Briefing: Russia and Israel

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The Independent Online

How historic is President Putin's visit to Israel today?

How historic is President Putin's visit to Israel today?

No Russian or Soviet head of state has visited Israel/Palestine before. And although the Soviet Union was one of the first countries to recognise Israel, its diplomatic relations went into deep freeze between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Madrid conference in 1991. The huge wave of post-Soviet Jewish immigration has swelled the number of Russian-speaking Israelis to one million - a sixth of the country's population. And given what Israel saw as insufficient recognition of the Holocaust in Soviet times, Mr Putin's gift, a statue by the Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli depicting Jews in a concentration camp, will be welcome. Mr Putin will meet Israelis who fought in the Red Army, though not - perhaps fortunately given his KGB past - with the minister and former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky, who is on holiday.

How positively does Israel consider its relationship with Russia?

On the face of it, very. Not only is Russia an increasingly important trading partner, worth $1.2bn (£600m) a year, but politically, Israeli officials report a "transformation" after 1991 from the Sixties and Seventies when it sided consistently with the Arab world. Israeli officials point to Russia's co-authorship of the road-map peace plan, its public support for Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement and above all Mr Putin's relentless support for the "war on terror". They note an unequivocal Russian statement condemning the Tel Aviv suicide bombing in February.

So what role can Russia play in any Middle East peace process?

The early international conference on the Middle East proposed by Mr Putin in Cairo yesterday will not find favour with Mr Sharon, who says that the road-map process envisages such a conference coming only after the first phase is fully enacted, including Palestinian dismantlement of the armed factions. But Russia remains a key player in the international quartet on the Middle East, and has a historic relationship with the Palestinians - including President Mahmoud Abbas, who made one of his first presidential visits to Russia in January. Israel hopes that Mr Putin will use that to stiffen Mr Abbas's will to crack down on the militants when he sees him in Ramallah tomorrow.

What other disagreements will be aired today?

Several big ones, starting with Iran. Believing that the European-sponsored diplomatic process to stop Iran building nuclear weapons is at a dead end, Israel is anxious to move quickly to a formal UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran. Mr Sharon will try hard to persuade Russia not to use its veto against such a resolution. And he will strongly protest - again - at Russia's sale of SA-18 Jeep-launched missiles to Syria which Israel insists, and Russia denies, could fall into the hands of Hizbollah. Finally Mr Putin may seek, almost certainly in vain, the extradition of three oil oligarchs now living in Israel and wanted on fraud charges in Russia.

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