Israel has a new, if somewhat reluctant, partner in the war on terror: Russia. Reeling from the loss of at least 335 of its citizens, roughly half of them children, at the hands of Chechen terrorists, Moscow signed a security cooperation memorandum with Jerusalem on Monday, despite a lingering diplomatic dispute on how terrorism should be defined.
"The terrorism that struck Russia is exactly the same kind of terrorism that strikes us," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, referring to last week's siege of a school in the disputed Russian region of North Ossetia.
Visiting Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov said contacts were already underway between the two countries' security agencies and thanked Israel for its help but demurred at the bid by Sharon to establish a sense of common cause.
Although he called terrorism a "universal evil," Lavrov suggested that the Palestinians could be seen as resisting Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the Muslim separatist cause based in Chechnya is illegitimate.
Russia, a member of the Middle East "Quartet" that pushed the now-moribund "road map" peace plan, was also at pains to make clear that it would not neglect the Arab world.
"I believe the key to the solution of the problem is to bring all countries to fight terror, and I can assure you that in addition to our very close counterterrorist cooperation with Israel, we have similar counterterrorist cooperation with Arab countries," said Lavrov during his one-day visit as part of a Middle East tour.
It was not clear what form the new Israeli-Russian cooperation would take.
Yet, for many in Jerusalem, just the declaration of empathy from a major European player was an achievement. Israeli media quickly called the outrage at the school in Beslan "Russia's 9/11," hinting that it could bring Moscow more into line with the U.S. war on terror launched following the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking attacks.
"The Soviet Union was notoriously pro-Arab, and the sense in Israel is that Russia has not quite gotten over that," a Sharon confidant said. "It was important that Russia understand, even the hard way, the sort of terrorism we have endured for decades, and especially over the last four years."
Despite killing more than 100,000 Chechens in its 13-year crackdown on the restive region, Russia has regularly censured Israel for its handling of the Palestinian revolt.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom put the new security pact to its first test by calling on Russia to oppose anti-Israel moves by the Palestinians and their Arab backers at the United Nations. In the last 21 U.N. resolutions on Israel, Russia has voted against the Jewish state 17 times and abstained on the others.
Russia did not immediately respond.
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