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Monday, 30 September, 2002, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Russia and Israel draw closer
Inside a sinagogue in Russia
Russia and Israel have more and more in common

It is a famous Soviet joke: a Russian Jew, who has emigrated to Israel, sits in a Tel Aviv cafe reading a copy of Pravda, the main Soviet daily.

"Why are you reading that, Moishe?" asks the waiter.

"Well, whenever I read an Israeli paper, it always tells me how hard life is in Israel," Moishe says.

"But, whenever I read a Soviet paper, it tells me that Israel is a powerful country, which is plotting to take over the world - and that is much more comforting!"

Refusenik generation

For years that was the official line from Moscow. Communist propaganda denounced Israel as the "Zionist state", the oppressors in the Middle East.

A poster calling on Jews to emigrate to Israel
More than a million Russian-speakers live in Israel
There were no diplomatic relations between the two countries. Moscow allied itself quite openly with the Arab World, while Israel received support from the United States - the Soviet Union's arch rival.

Soviet Jews wishing to leave for the promised land were blocked. "Refusenik" became the watchword of a generation.

Changing times

Times have changed. Today the leaders of Israel and Russia meet openly in the Kremlin. They talk of friendship, of ways to boost bilateral trade.

Browse through a Russian newspaper today and, generally, you will find a much more favourable image of the Jewish state than ever before.

That is because these days Russia and Israel feel they have much more in common.

For a start, there are more than a million Russian-speakers in Israel - most of whom emigrated there after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Many retain links with their former homeland - doing business with Russia and former Soviet states.

Then there is internal conflict. Both Russia and Israel claim to be fighting their own wars on terrorism - Israel against Palestinian suicide bombers, Moscow against Islamic rebels in Chechnya. Both countries feel under threat.

Differences, of course, remain.

Dialogue

Israel is concerned at Russia's ties with Iraq. It fears that Saddam Hussein may secure the technology he needs to make nuclear weapons with Russia's help.

Ditto - Iran. Russia is helping Teheran build nuclear power stations - Israel, like the United States, suspects that Iran could use those to develop weapons of mass destruction.

For its part, Moscow has been critical of the Israeli Government's use of force against the Palestinians. And Russia continues to deal with Yasser Arafat - despite Israel's assertion that the Palestinian leader is irrelevant.

There may be differences but - at least today - there is dialogue. That is the key to ensuring that Russia and Israel continue to co-operate, and never return to the conflicts of the past.

See also:

18 May 02 | Middle East
21 Sep 98 | Russia crisis
05 Feb 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
08 Jul 02 | Europe
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