Putin makes historic visit to Israel
Greeted by beaming Israeli officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday became the first Kremlin leader to visit the Jewish state, capping a historic rapprochement between two nations that once faced each other as bitter enemies across the Cold War divide.
Putin, on his first Middle East trip, was also hoping to restore his country's profile as a major player in the region and the world, bringing with him a fresh proposal for a conference to be held in Moscow in the autumn.
"Considering the history of relations and the fact that there were times that we were on one side and Russia was entirely on the other side ... (the visit) indicates the significant change that took place between the two countries," Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said as he stood on the airport tarmac waiting to greet Putin.
Moscow also barred Jews from leaving, jailing many who demanded the right to emigrate to Israel.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990s, the two nations restored ties, and Moscow loosened emigration restrictions, prompting more than a million Russian speakers to immigrate here. Natan Sharansky, a Jewish emigration activist who spent nine years in a Soviet jail on an espionage charge, is now Israel's minister for Diaspora affairs. Sharansky and Putin have no plans to meet, according to Israeli and Russian officials.
Relations are continuing to improve under Putin, who took office in 2000, as he tries to push Russia's economic interests abroad and evoke parallels between Israel's conflict with Palestinian militants and Russia's campaign against Chechen rebels.
Putin has sought to use the Middle East conflict to help restore Russia's stature on the international stage, where its presence is dwarfed by the United States. It has joined Europe, the United Nations and the United States in the so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers, and Palestinians view Russia as an important counterweight to U.S. support for Israel.
"Russia is a country that can, relatively speaking, neutralize — through its participation in the Quartet — a little bit of the American bias to Israel," Palestinian Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib said.
U.S. reaction to the conference was cool. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "We believe there will be an appropriate time for an international conference, but we are not at that stage now and I don't expect that we will be there by the fall."
The Palestinians and Russia also have a history of political and cultural cooperation dating to the Cold War. About 15,000 Palestinians — including Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas — studied in Russian universities.
Putin made a brief, late-night visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem on Wednesday. Reporters were kept out of the church, which marks the place where Jesus was crucified and where Christians believe he was resurrected.
Then he stopped at the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site in the Old City.
Putin plans to meet with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on Thursday. On Friday, he goes to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Abbas and lay a wreath at the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Officials in Sharon's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would express reservations.
Palestinians, worried that Israeli peace efforts will end with the pullout, embraced the conference proposal.
"From our side we welcome such a conference and we hope it will happen," Abbas said.
"Israel has accepted the road map, and in the second stage of the road map it specifically mentions a conference," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "So we don't have a problem with a conference ... but obviously we have not reached the second stage of the road map yet."
Israel's objections to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's plan for a London peace conference in March transformed that gathering into a workshop on internal Palestinian reforms.
Roman Bronfman, an Israeli lawmaker and political science expert who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1980, called the new proposed conference "a gimmick or a public relations stunt."
"But this is a desire of Putin's, to determine some of the steps and return to the Middle East, and this is an initiative that we will have to deal with," he told Israel TV.
Quartet foreign ministers will meet in Moscow on May 8 to discuss the peace process, Putin said. The level of representation had not been decided, Putin added, noting he still needed to speak with Sharon.
Putin said his visit to Egypt, his first to an Arab country since he became president, was aimed at reviving political and business links with the nation. The last Kremlin chief to make an official state visit to Egypt was Nikita Khrushchev in 1964.
In addition to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Putin and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also discussed Iraq, where violence has been on the rise in recent weeks.
Putin indicated Russia wants to see a timetable for the departure of U.S.-led forces.
"There must be an agreement on the basis of a new constitution, and there must be an agreement on the timing and conditions for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq," the Russian leader said.