Up­com­ing Putin visit aims to give mes­sage that Moscow is player in the re­gion

The Jerusalem Post - - NEWS - • By HERB KEINON

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, whose sup­port for Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad is strain­ing his ties with the West, is sched­uled to visit Is­rael on Mon­day for a short trip one diplo­matic of­fi­cial said is de­signed to send a clear mes­sage to the world: Rus­sia is a key player in the re­gion that needs to be taken into ac­count.

While the of­fi­cial pur­pose of the 24-hour visit will be to ded­i­cate a memo­rial in Ne­tanya to the Red Army de­feat of the Nazis, talks be­tween Putin and Prime Min­is­ter Binyamin Ne­tanyahu will cen­ter on Rus­sia’s pol­icy of prop­ping up As­sad in Syria and on the talks with Iran. Rus­sia is a mem­ber of the P5+1 group – which also in­cludes the US, China, France, Bri­tain and Ger­many – ne­go­ti­at­ing with Tehran.

Putin last vis­ited Is­rael in 2005, dur­ing his first term as pres­i­dent in a ground-break­ing first-ever Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial visit here. While one diplo­matic of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edged the dif­fer­ences of opin­ions be­tween Moscow and Jerusalem on is­sues sur­round­ing Iran, Syria and the diplo­matic process with the Pales­tini­ans, it was crit­i­cal for Is­rael to keep open a good chan­nel of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the Krem­lin.

Moscow, the of­fi­cial said, also rec­og­nizes that Is­rael is a cen­tral player in the re­gion, even if it is firmly in the Amer­i­can camp.

An­other diplo­matic of­fi­cial – again not down­play­ing the pol­icy dif­fer­ences be­tween Is­rael and Rus­sia – said that there has been an “amaz­ing im­prove­ment” in ties with Moscow since the Soviet era, when the Krem­lin ac­tively helped Is­rael’s worst en­e­mies with the goal of hurt­ing Is­rael.

“Ob­vi­ously we don’t agree about ev­ery­thing,” the of­fi­cial said, “but we have a con­struc­tive di­a­logue.”

Dur­ing an in­ter­view pub­lished Thurs­day in The Wash­ing­ton Post, De­fense Min­is­ter Ehud Barak al­luded to the con­ver­sa­tion that needed to be had with Rus­sia re­gard­ing Syria.

Asked whether he thought the West should arm the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, Barak said many steps should be taken, adding that “Rus­sia has in­vested a lot of po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal and money in the [As­sad] regime. They should have a cer­tain role if we want to suc­ceed.”

Barak said that if “Amer­ica and Rus­sia talk [ed] together about who can use what lever­age, that could be ex­tremely ef­fec­tive... It’s time for the world to dic­tate to Mr. As­sad to move out of power or else. But the ‘or else’ can be con­vinc­ing only if Amer­ica and Rus­sia will join hands,” he said.

Barak said he thought the Rus­sians could “in an hon­est, frank dis­cus­sion” be con­vinced to co­op­er­ate on Syria. “They could have a ma­jor role in help­ing to solve the Syr­ian is­sue.”

Putin, ac­com­pa­nied by a del­e­ga­tion that in­cludes a large en­tourage of 60 jour­nal­ists, will land Mon­day morn­ing and be met by For­eign Min­is­ter Avig­dor Liber­man, who met him in Moscow late last year and de­clared that the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions there were fair and demo­cratic. That po­si­tion was con­tro­ver­sial and at odds with the de­clared po­si­tion of US Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Putin will go di­rectly to Ne­tanya for the ded­i­ca­tion of the memo­rial, be­lieved to be one of the only, if not the only, memo­rial to the Red Army in a coun­try that was not for­merly part of the Soviet bloc. One govern­ment of­fi­cial said this showed “the unique his­toric re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries.”

Ne­tanyahu an­nounced the plans to build the memo­rial com­mem­o­rat­ing the Red Army’s vic­tory over Ger­many in World War II dur­ing his visit to Moscow in Fe­bru­ary 2010.

Ap­prox­i­mately 25 mil­lion Sovi­ets were killed dur­ing World War II, in­clud­ing some 11 mil­lion Red Army sol­diers. The num­ber of Jews who fought in the Red Army has been put at around 500,000, of which nearly 200,000 are be­lieved to have been killed.

Fol­low­ing the ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony, Putin will go to Jerusalem for meet­ings with Ne­tanyahu. There will be a one-on-one meet­ing be­tween the two lead­ers, fol­lowed by state­ments to the press and a work­ing lun­cheon with staff. Liber­man will at­tend that meet­ing, as well as a meet­ing in the evening be­tween Putin and Pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres.

Peres will then host a state din­ner in the Rus­sian leader’s honor.

The next day, Putin will travel to Beth­le­hem to ded­i­cate a Rus­sian cul­tural cen­ter, and then on to Jeri­cho where a meet­ing is ex­pected with Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas. From there, he will go to Jor­dan for talks with King Ab­dul­lah II, and then back to Moscow.

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