Putin Proposes International Conference Ahead of Israel Visit

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

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arrived in Israel on Wednesday for what has been dubbed an "historic visit," Wednesday proposed holding an international Israeli-Palestinian conference in the fall. Putin's visit is the first ever by a Russian leader to Israel.

The Palestinian Authority welcomed the idea as a good next step for the day after the removal of Israeli communities in the disengagement plan this summer, but Israel said it was waiting to hear more about the idea upon Putin's arrival.

Putin arrived with an entourage of some 200 people and was met at the airport by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israel is rolling out the red carpet for Putin's visit despite some major differences over the Russian sale of missiles to the Syrians and Russian help in building the Iranian nuclear reactor.

"It's a very, very important visit, the first visit ever by a Russian president," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. Regev said as far as he knew, not even a Russian czar has ever visited the Holy Land. "It shows the new relationship developing over the last 10 years," he said.

Putin, who met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Wednesday as part of a Middle East tour, proposed that Russia host an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in the fall, including members of the Quartet.

Russia - along with Quartet partners U.S., European Union, and United Nations - back the road map peace plan, which aims to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create a Palestinian state.

"I am suggesting that we should convene a conference for all these countries concerned [with the peace process] and the Quartet next autumn," Putin said in joint news conference with Mubarak.

Regev said Israel would hear more about Putin's idea when Israeli leaders meet with him on Thursday and that Israel was always willing to hear a "good idea."

"On the whole we have no objection to the idea of an international conference," said Regev. It is mentioned in stage two of the road map, he said.

However, if the idea of doing an international conference was intended to skip stages of the road map, then Israel would not be in favor of it now, Regev said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes that the road map process won't start until the Palestinian Authority dismantles the terrorist infrastructure.

Sharon initiated the disengagement plan to evacuate all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the northern West Bank as a unilateral move, although Israel is now willing to coordinate it with the P.A.

The U.S. and international community view the disengagement plan as a jump start to the road map process.

P.A. chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was surprised by Putin's suggestion of holding a conference but he welcomed the idea.

"I think it's a good idea," said Erekat, adding that it provides an answer for "the day after disengagement." He said the idea of an international conference was "consistent with the road map."

"I wasn't expecting it. Everybody is focusing on disengagement. Nobody is looking at the day after," Erekat said. The "day after" disengagement, he said, should be focused on the resumption of negotiations.

The day after disengagement will be the main issue the P.A. leaders will discuss with Putin when they meet with him on Friday, Erekat said. They will also discuss the road map, resumption of permanent status talks and stopping Israeli settlement construction as well as the building of its controversial security barrier.

Downplaying Differences

Israel attempted to downplay differences in two major areas and highlight the things that Israel and Russia have in common ahead of Putin's visit.

Topping the agenda is a planned sale of Russian missiles to Syria. Israel has opposed the sale, fearing that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists groups like Hizballah.

Putin said that his country is selling only missiles that must be mounted on a vehicle and not the shoulder-held variety, although he did admit in an interview with Israeli television last week that they will make it difficult for low-flying aircraft over the president's palace" in Syria - a reference to Israeli air force flight over Bashar Assad's palace.

Another topic high on Israel's agenda is Russian aid to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel and the U.S. fear that Iran is using the development of a civilian nuclear program as a cover for building an atomic bomb - a charge both Iran and Russia deny.

But Regev said that while these are "important issues," relations on the whole are "positive" and even the closest friends have disagreements.

Israel and Russia have good "political relations," Regev said, mentioning Russia's support of both the road map and the disengagement plan.

"We both have problems with extreme Islamic terrorism," and Israel and Russia cooperate in this area, Regev said. Israel and Russia also have good trade relations - $1.2 billion annually, which is more than Russia's trade in the Arab world, he added.

Not earthshaking

Russian expert Dr. Stefani Hoffman said the most important part of Putin's visit is the fact that it's taking place.

"It's historic but not earthshaking," said Hoffman, former director of the Mayrock Center for Russian and East European Research of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "It's not a visit to sign already prepared documents."

It is the start of Putin's own initiative to try to regain Russian influence in the Middle East, said Hoffman.

"It is apparently an effort to try to show again the Russian military ability," Hoffman said.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the patron of the Arab World, supplying arms to most Arab countries. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire, its power and prestige in the Middle East dwindled.

Russia also has strong cultural ties with Israel since over a million Israelis emigrated from the former Soviet states during the last 15 years.

"They take pride in that," Hoffman said. "They see it as part of the extended Russian cultural empire."

Putin is being hosted by Israeli President Moshe Katsav and will also meet with Sharon. He is also scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, meet with Russian veterans who live here, and visit the Russian Orthodox Church.

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