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Putin Visits Israel During Middle East Uncertainty


Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the Middle East today. He's on a tour of the region that begins in Israel, where he's accompanied by a four-plane convoy carrying an entourage of 300 businessmen and policymakers.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the agenda in a country where Putin's policies have caused a lot of consternation.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: President Putin is being treated to a warm reception here in Israel. He's unveiling a war memorial to commemorate the contributions of the Red Army in World War II in liberating the deaths camps. He'll be meeting with all the senior Israeli officials, including Russian speaking Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But despite the pomp, President Putin's visit to Israel comes at a time of turmoil and uncertainty in this region, and Russia has often been at odds with Israeli policy on key issues like Iran and Syria.

Yaakov Livne heads the Eurasian Department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

YAAKOV LIVNE: We have set up very good mechanisms for political dialogue, and this gives us a possibility to map very clearly not only the understandings, but also the differences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Behind the bland diplomatic-speak, there is a reality. There are a lot of differences in the way the two countries see the region. So why is President Putin visiting here now, and what do the two sides hope to achieve? Obviously Iran and its suspect nuclear program are top of the agenda. Israel will be pushing Putin.

MEIR JAVADANFAR: They will ask the Russians to back the unilateral sanctions imposed by President Obama and the European Union, and also to send a strong message to Iran that the world is very serious about these talks. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu will also tell President Putin to tell the Iranians that the military option is very credible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meir Javadanfar is an Israel analyst on Iran. Russia is a key player in the ongoing talks with Tehran, but it opposes any further sanctions on Iran, and it's warned Israel not to attack its nuclear sites. Iran's nuclear reactor was actually built with Russian technology. Javadanfar says Russia, for its part...

JAVADANFAR: It's sending a message to Iran's leaders by coming here, and that message is that if you don't compromise, I have ways of counterbalancing you, and one of them is getting closer to Israel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Syria will also be on the agenda. Russia is a staunch defender of the Assad regime, and it's been supplying weapons to prop it up despite the censure of the international community. Boris Morozof is a Russia specialist at Tel Aviv University.

BORIS MOROZOF: Russia, I think, is feeling quite important because now everybody needs Russia in U.N. U.S. needs Russia. Israel needs Russia. Because actually Russia is a kind of mediator or middleman.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for its help, Israel needs to offer something in return. There are points of common interest, says Morozof. Russia is interested in Israeli military technology, especially Israeli-made unmanned drones. There will also be discussions over Israel's recent discovery of natural gas, and crucially, talks on cooperation on issues of Islamic terrorism. Morozof says Russia, like Israel, is worried about the Islamization of the Middle East because it has its own large domestic Muslim population.

This is Putin's second trip to the Jewish state. In 2005 he became the first Russian president to ever visit Israel. There are over one million Russian-speaking Jews in Israel which provide the Russian leader with a large constituency. Amnon Sella is professor emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Russia expert. He says despite strong ties between the two nations, Israel at the end probably won't get what it wants from Russia, especially on Iran.

AMNON SELLA: Whatever Israel has to say and whatever leverage Israel has - and it is a very small leverage, actually - it is not going to change the course of Russian policy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On Tuesday, President Putin will travel to the occupied West Bank, where the stalled peace process will be on the agenda. There is likely to be little progress there also. Russia belongs to the quartet of Middle East peacemakers, along with the U.S., the U.N. and the European Union. But that body has proven unable to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sundayand one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcastUp First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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