Putin’s whirlwind Middle East tour

Putin’s whirlwind Middle East tour

Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran’s nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader’s first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:

"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."

Putin’s agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues — namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "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.’"

Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:

"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."

According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:

"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."

Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel’s vast natural gas fields.

On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart’s position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."

Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."

Unfortunately, Putin’s trip did not include arm-wrestling or kissing sturgeon fish, but he may have joined in some singing.