Putin Says Syrian Missile Sale No Threat to Israel

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Jerusalem on Thursday that his country's sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria was no threat to Israel and would not change the balance of power in the region. But his Israeli hosts disagreed.

Putin, the first Russian leader ever to visit Israel, discussed a wide range of topics with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his formal host President Moshe Katsav, including the controversial sale of missiles to Syria and Russian help in developing the Iranian nuclear program.

Sharon virtually nixed Putin's idea of hosting an international conference in the fall to promote the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Putin suggested the idea during a news conference in Egypt on Wednesday. In his Thursday meeting with Sharon, Putin explained that he meant to propose a professional meeting at the expert level in order to advance the diplomatic process here. Nevertheless, he said, no conference would be held without Israel's consent.

Sharon noted that an international conference should be held at the second stage of the road map peace plan and not any sooner. He is concerned that an international conference would be used to skip over the first stage of the road map.

Russia is one the four international backers of the road map along with the U.S., European Union and United Nations. The road map aims to resolve the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a Palestinian state.

According to Sharon, the P.A. still has not dismantled its terrorist infrastructure and therefore has not fulfilled its commitment in the first stage of the road map.

Putin is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday.

Chief P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the main topic on the P.A. agenda for the meeting with Putin is what will happen the day after Israel completes its disengagement plan, removing some 10,000 Jews from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank.

Iranian threat

The Iranian military nuclear capability constitutes "a tangible and existential danger" to Israel, the Middle East, Europe and the world, Sharon told Putin in their meeting.

Nuclear arms in the hands of "extremist elements," constitutes a threat that must be prevented, Sharon said according to a statement from his office.

Russia has been helping Iran complete a nuclear reactor, which it says is for peaceful purposes. Israel and the U.S. both charge that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program to cover up its quest for nuclear weapons. But Iran and Russia deny the charges.

A nuclear-equipped Iran frightens Russia as much as it frightens Israel, Putin said. Russia is Israel's ally in this, Putin said, and it would not aid Iran in developing a nuclear bomb, he added.

Syrian sale

On another sensitive issue, Sharon told Putin that Israel was concerned that "new and sophisticated weapons" could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations.

Putin said that his country would follow through on selling SA-18 missiles to Syria because doing so would not harm Israel nor change the balance of power in the region. He also said that Russia had taken steps to insure that the weapons would not reach terrorist organizations.

Earlier in the day, Putin went to great lengths to explain why he believed the Syrian sale would not create problems for Israel.

At a news conference, following a meeting with Katsav, his official host, Putin argued that of the $9 billion in arms sold to countries in the Middle East, the U.S. supplied $6.8 billion and Russian only supplied $500 million.

The range of the missiles in question could not reach Israel, Putin said. And they must be mounted on trucks so terrorists could not use them, he added. He also said that about 25 percent of the Israeli population emigrated from former Soviet states and he wanted them to live in security.

Katsav and Putin signed a joint declaration highlighting commonalities between Israel and Russia - past, present and future.

The agreement emphasized the loss suffered by the Jewish people as well as the Russians and others during World War II and the part the Soviet Army played in defeating Adolf Hitler.

It pledged cooperation in fighting terrorism and promoted exchanges in the fields of security, business, culture, science, tourism, education, sports and civil society.

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