Tight-lipped Putin pressed to bring Iran, Syria to order, but warm words for Abbas
Just Passing Through, Putin Consults With Israeli Leaders on Syria and Iran
By Isabel Kershner, NY Times
June 25, 2012
JERUSALEM — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia conferred with Israeli leaders on Monday during a 24-hour visit that juxtaposed the much improved ties between the countries with their sharp differences, chief among them the Iranian nuclear program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other senior Israeli officials held talks with Mr. Putin that focused on Iran and other regional issues, according to the prime minister’s office.
But there was little hope here that the visit would change Russian policy in the region.
Russia was the host of the latest talks between six world powers and Iran this month, which ended without even a commitment to another high-level meeting, and Israeli leaders have argued that the talks merely give Iran more time to develop what they insist is a military nuclear program.
Iran insists its program is peaceful, and Russia has been reluctant to support tougher sanctions against it.
Israeli leaders have also called for more international resolve to end the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s military is trying to crush an armed uprising. Russia is viewed as Mr. Assad’s principal foreign defender.
At a joint news conference after their meeting, Mr. Netanyahu said he and Mr. Putin had agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran “presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.”
Israel, Mr. Netanyahu said, wants expanded sanctions against Tehran, a halt to all uranium enrichment by Iran, the removal of all enriched uranium from Iran and the dismantling of an underground nuclear facility near the city of Qum.
Speaking in Russian, Mr. Putin said that he and Mr. Netanyahu had discussed Syria and the Iranian nuclear program and that the talks had been detailed and very useful.
President Shimon Peres then held a state dinner in Mr. Putin’s honor. Privately, officials expressed skepticism about their ability to influence Russia.
“Let’s not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit,” said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, “Do not expect any major breakthrough.”
The main reason for the visit, officials here said, was the inauguration of a national monument in the coastal city of Netanya honoring Soviet Red Army soldiers who died during World War II and their role in the victory over Nazi Germany. The visit had been scheduled around the completion of construction of the monument.
Mr. Peres used the highly symbolic occasion to address the contentious diplomatic issues.
“I am confident that Russia, which defeated fascism, will not allow today’s threats to continue,” he said in a speech at the ceremony. “Not the Iranian threat. Not the bloodshed in Syria.”
Israel also has reservations about Russia’s role in the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Russia, a member of the so-called quartet of Middle East peacemakers with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, has consistently sided with the Palestinians during disputes, one official here said. Mr. Netanyahu called on Mr. Putin to urge the Palestinians to return to negotiations.
The leftist Meretz Party protested Mr. Putin’s visit, saying it was “morally wrong and diplomatically unwise” for Mr. Netanyahu to meet with Mr. Putin while civilians were being killed in Syria.
Diplomatic disagreements aside, though, Israel was eager to cultivate its relations with a major world and regional player. Those ties grew after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was hostile to Israel, and have been cemented by the arrival in Israel of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, among them 10,000 Red Army veterans.
Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet includes several Russian speakers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Trade between Israel and Russia is increasing, and Russian tourists here are second only to Americans in number, though many of them come only for a one-day Holy Land excursion as part of a cruise or a longer stay in nearby Turkey.
Mr. Netanyahu said he was sure that Mr. Putin’s visit would further improve ties in agriculture, science, technology and space, among other fields.
Mr. Putin arrived with an entourage of about 400 Russians, including several ministers, deputy ministers, businesspeople and journalists.
On Tuesday, he was scheduled to travel to Bethlehem in the West Bank to dedicate a Russian cultural center and meet with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, before leaving for Jordan.
By Mohhamed Darahmeh, Associated Press
June 26, 2012
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his Palestinian counterpart Tuesday for what he said was a “responsible” position in negotiations with Israel, frozen for nearly four years, and said Russia has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state.
Putin also offered veiled criticism of Israel, saying unilateral actions — an apparent reference to Israeli settlement construction on war-won land — is not constructive.
The Russian president spoke at the end of a visit to the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by his side. Putin inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem and toured the church built over the traditional birth grotto of Jesus.
Israeli-Palestinian talks on the terms of Palestinian statehood broke off in 2008. Repeated efforts to restart them have failed because of wide gaps between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas.
Netanyahu says he is ready to resume talks but rejects preconditions. Abbas says there’s no point negotiating as long as Israel keeps building for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied territories the Palestinians want for a state, along with the Gaza Strip. Israel has moved half a million settlers to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since the 1967 war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
“We talked about ways of overcoming the dilemma of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” Putin said Tuesday. “I point out here the responsible position of President Abbas and his endeavor to reach a peaceful settlement based on a two-state settlement.”
“I am sure that all unilateral actions are not constructive,” he added.
Russia is an important Mideast player, in part because it is a member of the “Quartet” of mediators that includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Of the four, Russia is seen as the most sympathetic to the Palestinians but has little sway over the group, because the United States has traditionally claimed the dominant role in mediating between the two sides.
With negotiations frozen, Abbas has sought to increase Palestinian leverage by seeking U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine. Palestinian diplomats have also toured the world in search of recognition of Palestine by individual countries.
Dozens of countries, including the former Soviet Union, did so after a 1988 statehood declaration by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Putin said Tuesday that Russia sticks by that decision. The United States and Israel have urged Abbas to halt all attempts to seek recognition of a Palestinian state and wait for a deal with Israel.
Abbas reiterated Tuesday that negotiations with Israel remain his key goal.
Later Tuesday, Putin traveled to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II. Officials said they talked about the bloodshed in Syria, stalled Mideast peace efforts, Iran’s nuclear program, Russian assistance to Jordan to build a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes and modernizing an oil terminal in the Gulf of Aqaba.
With close ties to Iran and a vote on the U.N. Security Council, Russia is seen as an important player that could influence Tehran, though it has in the past watered down international pressure on the Islamic Republic.
Russia is also one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s closest allies. Assad has drawn international condemnation for his bloody crackdown on the country’s armed uprising.
In the meeting, Abdullah called for a “political solution to the crisis in Syria that would protect the unity and stability of the country and end the violence and bloodshed,” a Royal Palace statement said. He said that a solution must have an “Arab and international consensus.”
Putin and the king met in a conference hall on the shores of the Dead Sea. Later, Putin inaugurated a Russian guesthouse in the baptismal site in the nearby Jordan River, where tradition says Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
Jordan’s banned Tahrir, or Liberation Party, condemned Putin as an “enemy who is not welcome in Jordan.”
It called Putin “an arch enemy of Islam and Muslims,” citing his close ties with Assad. “His visit to Jordan is an arrogant challenge to the feeling of Muslims and a disdain of innocent blood shed in Syria.”
On Monday, Putin met Netanyahu, who urged Russia to step up pressure on Iran to curb its suspect nuclear program.
At a state dinner Monday, Israeli President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he “raise his voice” against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a “national interest” to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further.
Additional reporting by Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan.