President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan has been seen as an effort to increase Russia’s clout in the region at a time when the West and some Arab nations have criticized Moscow’s stance opposing their efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Putin’s trip was greeted with mixed reviews by the Israeli press that accused the Russian leader of looking “apathetic” but also acknowledged that he stressed on a strong relationship between the two countries.
“Israel goes all out for Russia’s Putin, who arrives 90 minutes late,” Israeli daily Haaretz wrote on Tuesday.
Putin was delayed for the inauguration of a monument dedicated to the Red Army’s battles against Nazi Germany in World War II.
Meanwhile The Jerusalem Post said Israel and Russia are united in their conviction that Iran’s nuclear program poses a grave threat to the world, but a sharp divide remains between the two countries on significant foreign policy issues such as Iran and Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres urged the Russian leader in Jerusalem on Monday to use his influence with Tehran to protect the Jewish state against nuclear threats.
Along with the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany, Russia has been holding talks with Iran to ensure it does not develop nuclear weapons, and hosted inconclusive talks with Tehran last week.
In his first public comments on the talks in Moscow, Netanyahu repeated Israel’s three core demands.
“I believe two things must be done now: strengthening the sanctions and also boosting the demands,” Netanyahu said, without mentioning the possibility of Israeli military action should diplomacy fail.
The international community must call for the cessation of all uranium enrichment in Iran, the removal of all enriched uranium from the country and the dismantling of the Furdow underground nuclear facility, he added.
But Russia takes a softer tack than the Western nations, opposing any further sanctions against Iran and urging Israel not to attack its nuclear sites. Putin has said Russia has no proof Tehran is seeking to become a nuclear-armed power.
In the Syrian conflict, Russia has brushed aside U.S. and Arab calls to stop sending weapons to the Syrian government, saying it supplies only defensive arms. It has also used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to defend Syria.
Assad has helped Russia keep a foothold in the Middle East by buying billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance facility for the Russian navy, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.
In the U.S. press, The New York Times reported that there was little hope that Putin’s visit would change Russian policy in the region.
“Let’s not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit,” a senior Israeli official told the paper on condition of anonymity. He added, “Do not expect any major breakthrough.”
The Christian Science Monitor said the visit publically emphasized the dramatic reconciliation and galloping economic cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem. But In private, it likely featured some harsh words between Putin and Netanyahu over Kremlin’s political support for Syria and Iran.
In the Middle East, Abu-Dhabi based The National agreed with The New York Times , saying Putin’s visit to the Jewish state has probably more to do with shoring up support back home where opposition to his rule has grown than with any significant policy changes in the region.
But back home in Russia The Moscow Times said the visit to Israel was intended to further strengthen ties with the country, populated by more than 900,000 Russian Jews.
Putin was to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem later on Tuesday.
The talks with Abbas, a frequent visitor to Russia, were expected to focus on the stalled Middle East peace process
The official Russian news Agency Interfax reported that Russia and Palestine signed an agreement on the legal status and operation of a museum and park in complex in the West Bank city of Jericho.
According to Interfax, the Jericho complex is “a symbol of Russia's growing presence in Palestine.”
Putin also visited the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem upon his arrival in the Palestinian territories.
A Putin deputy told the Israeli newspaper Israel Today that the Russian president would urge Abbas not to take unilateral steps and that they would discuss Israel’s continued settlement building on occupied Palestinian land.