Russian President Vladimir Putin is embarking on the first ever visit by a Kremlin leader to the Jewish state in an historic bid to cement improving relations after decades of Soviet-era strain.
Putin was due to arrive from Egypt this evening for a three-day visit that also was aimed at reasserting Russia’s role in the Middle East and boosting Putin’s image as a world leader amid accusations of backsliding on democracy at home.
But the visit comes as increasingly close ties between the two countries are threatened by Russia’s determination to push ahead with a missile sale to Syria - a move Israel considers gravely threatening.
Other potential sore points are Moscow’s nuclear aid to Iran, signs of rising anti-Semitism in Russia and the Kremlin’s push for extradition of billionaires it wants to prosecute in connection with the campaign against the oil company Yukos.
“There will difficult moments,” said Alexander Shumilin, director of a Mideast analysis centre at Moscow’s USA and Canada Institute. He called the visit “part of an effort to create a new profile for Russia around the world, and particularly in the Middle East.”
The Soviet Union supported Israel around the time of its creation in 1948 but later shifted its stance, providing military and political support to Arab countries and siding with the Palestinians in international debates, while barring many Jews from emigrating.
Relations have improved since the 1991 Soviet collapse – particularly under Putin, who is eager to push Russia’s economic interests abroad and sees parallels between Israel’s conflict with Palestinian militants and Russia’s campaign against Chechen rebels.
The volume of trade between Russia and Israel has reached above $1bn (€774m) annually, but Putin’s deputy press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said on Tuesday that was “clearly not enough” and that increasing economic ties, including in the high-tech and energy sectors, would be on the agenda.
Other key issues, Peskov said, would be co-operation against terrorism and boosting Mideast peace efforts. After meetings with Israeli officials on Thursday, Putin was expected to visit the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian leaders on Friday before returning home.
Along with the US, the European Union and the United Nations, Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace sponsors, but its role has been overshadowed by Washington’s.
Putin hopes to “restore Russia’s involvement in a positive key – not against Israel and America, as it was in Soviet times,” Shumilin said. By visiting Egypt and the West Bank, Putin is seeking to balance the Israel trip, he said.
But with Russia rattling Israel by providing Syria with anti-aircraft missiles, it’s a delicate balancing act for Putin, who has also moved to revive close Soviet-era ties with Israel’s Arab neighbours.
Officials have been hammering away at each other for months, with the Israelis saying they don’t accept Russian assurances the missiles are not a threat.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said on Tuesday that Moscow would go ahead with the sale of Strelets missiles and that any assertion they could be made portable – and thus used by terrorists – was “like saying submarines could fly,” the Interfax news agency reported.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that as long as the missiles had not yet been shipped to Syria Israel would continue trying to persuade the Russians to reverse their decision.
Speaking to Israel TV last week, Putin said the missiles would make it more difficult for Israeli jets to make low-altitude flights over Syrian president Bashar Assad’s residence – a practice he suggsted was not conducive to peace efforts. Israel sent a fighter plane over Assad’s house in 2003 after a suicide bombings Israel linked to Syria.
Israel, along with the US, also worries that Russia’s construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons, but Israeli and US officials say they are increasingly convinced Moscow shares their concerns.
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said on Tuesday that top officials he met with in Russia last week “made it extremely clear that they see it in their interests that Iran will not become a nuclear power.”
Putin’s visit also was scheduled to coincide with a verdict in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire former CEO of Yukos jailed in 2003 in what Kremlin critics at home and abroad say is politically motivated case. However, the verdict was postponed to May 16.
Russia has been pushing foreign countries to extradite associates of Khodorkovsky, including Leonid Nevzlin, who lives in Israel and is accused by Russian prosecutors of ordering killings.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last week that he opposes the extradition of Jews.
The issue is sensitive in Russia because of increasing outbreaks of anti-Semitism, including aJanuary call by nationalist MPs for a ban on Jewish organisations, and Putin appears unlikely to press the extradition issue in public.
During commemorations of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Putin acknowledged that anti-Semitism is a problem in Russia. He has repeatedly condemned it ahead of his visit to Israel, where Jews from the former Soviet Union and Russia make up a significant portion of the population.