May 5, 2005
Putin Visit Stirs Conflicting Opinions
There were important issues on the agenda when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Israel last week. Still, Russian newspapers seemed most impressed that Putin -- the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit the Jewish state -- wore a kippah on his head when he visited Yad Vashem.
Most of the major dailies ran a front-page photograph April 29 of Putin sporting a yarmulke, and one of the papers titled its main story on the visit, "Putin in Kippah."
The action was seen as particularly important, because Putin previously had avoided wearing a kippah, even during a visit to a Moscow synagogue a few years ago. It gained him even more acclaim after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to wear a yarmulke on Sunday, when he visited Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial.
But what Putin's visit actually accomplished in terms of Russian-Israeli relations is up for debate.
State-run television channels and some of the Russian dailies described the visit as a big success for Russia and praised Putin's surprise initiative, a suggested international conference on the Middle East to be held in Moscow this fall. Putin first proposed the idea in Cairo, just before he started the Israeli leg of his regional tour.
A prominent Russian Jewish religious leader who was a member of the Russian delegation in Israel said the visit was a major success for Russia, and will benefit relations between Moscow and Jerusalem in the longer run.
"This visit being taken in Israel is historic, and not only because it was the first one, but also because our relations are now changing for the better," Berel Lazar, one of Russia's chief rabbis, was quoted by news agencies as saying.
Official Russian sources and some media outlets downplayed the differences between Moscow and Jerusalem on the issues of the Russian sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran, considered to be Israel's most powerful enemy. When Israeli officials raised their objections to Russia's deals with Syria, Putin refused to back down, insisting that the sale would not harm Israel.
"The missiles we are providing to Syria are short-range anti-aircraft missiles that cannot reach Israeli territory," Putin told Israeli reporters. "To come within their range, you would have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?"
Israeli officials, however, are skeptical about Russian assurances that Syria won't transfer the missiles to terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah.
The Russian president did call on Iran to "abandon all technology to create a full nuclear cycle and also not obstruct their nuclear sites from international control."
Whether these words will be translated into action is another matter. Both Israel and the United States have long believed that Russia is providing technology and expertise that is allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapons program.
Many in Moscow's Jewish community were unimpressed by the visit, which was touted by the Kremlin as a way to show Russia's growing influence in the Middle East.
"This was a historic visit without any historic results," said Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and a longtime Russian Jewish leader. "There was a talk with [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon about anti-Semitism and terrorism. But I suspect when Russia is asked what is being done to curb Russian anti-Semitism, the answer would be not much."
Some analysts had speculated that Putin's visit indicated a Russian desire to boost its role as an international mediator in the Middle East. However, the visit did not provide a clear answer to the questions of what Russia can do in the region, and if Israel is ready to accept an increased Russian role.
"There is still a big gap between Russia and Israel on political issues, and Putin tried to compensate for these differences with an overall friendliness toward Israel and the Jewish people," said Grigoriy Melamedov, a Russian Middle Eastern analyst. "The question is whether this is enough to consider the visit a success."
Some analysts say Russia's uncertainty over its role in the Middle East leads to inconsistent and sometimes surprising moves.
The call for a conference "was not something we were prepared to hear during this visit," a source with the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow told JTA.
Melamedov said, "Russia may want to get involved more actively in the Middle East, and it is frantically trying to find its place there, but it obviously has little understanding yet how to succeed, while this niche is occupied by the U.S."
For its part, the United States rejected Putin's call for the conference.
"We believe there will be an appropriate time for an international conference," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "But we are not at that stage now, and I don't expect that we will be there by the fall."
Sharon praised Putin, using his visit to Yad Vashem as an opportunity to remind the world of the Soviet Union's role during World War II.
"The Jewish people and the State of Israel will never forget how the Soviet Union liberated the concentration camps," Sharon told Putin. "You are among friends."
But because there was little, if any, tangible progress, Chlenov said the visit is likely to be remembered mostly for this type of symbolism.
"Russian Jews for generations to come may now remember that there was a leader who was the first to set his foot in the Jewish state, the first of Russian leaders to toast 'l'chaim,'" he said. "Aside from that, this can hardly be called memorable or successful."