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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 06:04 GMT 07:04 UK
Sharon woos 'even-handed' Moscow
Yasser Arafat and
Russia has abandoned the USSR's pro-Arab role
By BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

Israeli Prime Minister Israel Sharon is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday on the second day of his three-day visit to Moscow.

The two sides are expected to discuss the continuing violence in the Middle East, ways of increasing economic cooperation, and Russian arms sales to Iran.

Israel Sharon
Sharon: Russia and Israel face common threat
The visit is first and foremost an acknowledgement that Russia is playing a new role in the Middle East - one that is not a carbon copy of the old pro-Arab role played by the Soviet Union.

Under President Putin, Russia wants stronger links with Israel as well as with the Palestinians and the Arab states.

It wants to play a role in Middle East diplomacy, and resents the notion that the only big outside player is the United States.

And it also wants ties with both Iran and Iraq - regardless of how controversial this is in both Israel and the United States.

Arms to Iran

The Israelis have noticed a new even-handedness in Moscow's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Russia has for some months aligned itself with the position taken by both the United States and the European Union, in calling for a ceasefire to be followed by implementation of the Mitchell plan - the proposals put forward by the former American senator George Mitchell.

Admiral Ali Shamkhani
Shamkhani: Shopping list
But equally Mr Sharon is only too well aware that his visit to Russia nearly overlapped with that of the Iranian Defence Minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani.

This is a sharp reminder of what is, from an Israeli point of view, the unacceptable face of Moscow's new activism in the Middle East.

Israelis are not impressed by Russia's assurances that it's ready to supply Iran only with defensive, rather than offensive, weapons.

The Iranian Defence Minister, who postponed his visit at the last minute so that he would not be in Moscow at the same time as Mr Sharon, is reported to have a shopping list that includes Russian warplanes, attack helicopters and anti-aircraft missile systems.

One Russian commentator sees his country's relationships with Israel and Iran as an example of the "promiscuity" of Russian foreign policy.

Radical Islam

Mr Sharon wants to persuade President Putin they face a common threat from what Israel regards as "international Islamic terrorism".

Vladimir Putin
Putin has radical Muslim friends
For Israel, he will argue, the threat comes from the Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah; whereas for Russia it comes from Muslims fighting Russian forces in Chechnya.

And both countries, he will add, face a common threat from the worldwide network of Islamic militants run by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born dissident based in Afghanistan.

But President Putin sees things differently. He is unwilling to put all radical Muslims in the same basket.

For the Israelis, two other factors make this much more than a routine visit.

Immigrants

Mr Sharon is accompanied by his trade and industry minister, Dalia Itzik, and he clearly wants to boost economic co-operation between the two countries.

Secondly, Israel is already home to more than a million Russian Jews, who have become an important part of Israeli life - and Israeli politics.

Many of them would like to see closer ties between Moscow and the Jewish state.

Moreover, according to the Israeli press, Mr Sharon has set himself the strategic goal of bringing another million Russian Jews to Israel over the next 15 years.

This is an ambitious aim, given the current level of violence in the Middle East and the preference of many Russian Jews to emigrate to the West rather than to Israel.

See also:

25 Nov 00 | Middle East
Putin proposes Mid-East observers
22 Nov 00 | Media reports
Egypt press lauds Israel envoy recall
23 Nov 00 | Middle East
Russia enters Mid-East fray
Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.


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