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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 April 2005, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Analysis: Russia seeks Mid-East role
By Nick Childs
BBC World Affairs correspondent

President Putin in Egypt
Russian influence in the region has been eclipsed by the US
Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun his short Middle East tour in Egypt, but it is his stop in Israel - the first visit ever by a Russian leader - that provides the centrepiece of the trip.

Russia and Israel have been trying gingerly to forge a new relationship after decades of being largely on opposite sides of the Middle East divide.

This comes against the background of the shifting sands of current regional political developments.

For these reasons, it is difficult to see what will emerge in concrete terms from this historic visit.

But both Russia and Israel have good reasons for wanting to improve their ties.

Russia may be a member of the Quartet of international parties in the Middle East peace process.

But Moscow has seen its influence in the region largely eclipsed, much to its frustration and that of some of its former clients in the region.

Mr Putin would dearly like to improve Russia's standing once more.

Russian immigrants

Bilateral trade between the two countries is growing. Israel imports the bulk of its crude oil from Russia.

And the two sides have expressed a common interest in combating international terrorism, which has developed into practical co-operation and some training.

On top of that, some 20% of Israel's population are Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel mainly following Moscow's decision finally to lift the ban on Jewish emigration in the 1980s.

But there are some issues that cloud the horizon for this visit.

Primarily, they revolve around Israeli opposition to Russia's proposed sale of air defence missiles to Syria and, probably more significantly, its nuclear co-operation with Iran.

The Israeli government is also concerned about signs of growing anti-Semitism in Russia.

Mr Putin, for his part, is expected to raise the question of Russian business tycoons who have taken refuge in Israel but whom the Russian authorities would like to see extradited back to Moscow to face charges.

Embarrassed

On the missile front, the Russian leader insists the deal with Syria is no threat to Israeli security, and also that it will definitely go ahead.

But he probably did not help matters when he rather undiplomatically observed in an interview for Israeli television ahead of his visit that the weapons would make it more difficult to fly over the residence of the Syrian president.

It is widely assumed that an embarrassed and angry President Bashar al-Assad of Syria asked for the missiles after a palace of his was buzzed by the Israeli air force in 2003.

Some critics argue that Israel has only itself to blame for the missile deal. But that will not stop Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from raising the matter.

The Israelis still argue that they are particularly concerned that the missiles could fall into the hands of militant groups.

They say they are not satisfied by Russia's insistence that it is selling Damascus the vehicle-mounted - rather than the more portable shoulder-launched - version of the missile.

The row will undoubtedly affect the atmosphere of Mr Putin's visit. But it is uncertain whether it will simply be an irritant, or something more serious.

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