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Russia: Jews Urge Government To Play Stronger Role In Mideast Peace Process

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Last Friday's suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco marked the single most deadly attack in Israel since a Palestinian uprising over Israeli occupation erupted eight months ago. Most of the victims were teenagers from families that had recently emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that reaction in Russia, particularly among the Jewish community, has been of outrage and calls to step up Russia's role in the peace process.

Moscow, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Teenage sisters Yelena and Yulia Nelimov were buried side by side in Tel Aviv on Sunday, two days after a suicide bomb sprayed metal shards and nails into a crowd of people outside the Dolphin discotheque, killing 20 Israeli citizens. The same day, the militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the incident.

The Nelimov sisters, who were 18 and 16 years old, had emigrated with their mother from Russia five years ago. A majority of the bombing victims were, like them, "repatriates" -- some of the 700,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who have emigrated to Israel since 1989.

In Russia, where 400,000 Jews still live, reaction to the deadly blast was heated.

Russia's Jewish community was quick to criticize the Russian government, accusing it of taking too soft a stance on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was in Moscow last week seeking support for a new international conference on the Middle East.

Russia was a close Palestinian ally during the Soviet era, but has since tried to foster good ties on both sides of the Mideast divide, co-sponsoring with the United States peace process efforts in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who on Saturday strongly condemned the incident as a "terrorist attack," signaled that Russian policymakers are adopting a tougher stance on the Palestinian role in the conflict.

But the shift has not been strong enough for some. Adolf Shayevich is a prominent Russian rabbi representing the country's mainstream Jewish community. He criticized the government Sunday for failing to take a harder line during the talks with the Palestinian leader, saying a firmer stance could have helped prevent incidents like the suicide bombing two days before.

Shayevich told the Interfax news agency: "Arafat's Moscow visit could have solved many problems had Russia adopted a tougher position -- an ultimatum that if such terrorist acts against civilians continue, there will be no more backing for [the Palestinians]."

Aleksandr Osovtsov is vice president of the influential Russian branch of the World Jewish Congress. Speaking to Interfax, he accused the Russian Foreign Ministry of "traditionally supporting Arab countries, and in particular the Palestinians." He added that Russia "should have nothing to do with Arafat if he doesn't prove he was in no way involved with the terrorist acts."

But Osovtsov also said he believed Moscow was now forging closer ties with Israel behind the scenes. He said that Russia may now be seeing Israel as a "natural ally in fighting Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism."

A spokesperson for the Russian Jewish Congress said the group would send a delegation to Israel within the next two weeks to help organize financial aid for the families of Friday's bombing victims.

On Monday, Berl Lazar -- a leading Russian rabbi and representative of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch community -- called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to "use all of his influence to put pressure on the Middle East's Arab states to stop the violence and make Arafat take real steps toward this goal."

In remarks cited by, Lazar also said that his organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, was trying to track down relatives of Friday's bombing victims still living in the former Soviet Union.

The Israeli Embassy in Moscow told RFE/RL that following the blast it had received calls from panicked family members trying to locate children and parents living in Israel.

But analysts say the ongoing violence in the Middle East will not change much in Russian emigration trends. Karol Unger is the head of the Moscow office of the Jewish Agency, which oversees Russian emigration to Israel. He said he did not expect any "panic reaction" of repatriates looking to return to Russia, or would-be emigres deciding not to go to Israel, because of the violence.

Unger told RFE/RL that on Sunday -- just two days after the Tel Aviv bombing -- he was in the Russian city of Bryansk, meeting with some 40 Russian families who were considering sending their children to a summer study program in Israel:

"They came to the meeting and they had many questions. I can't say that they weren't afraid. Every parent is afraid. But at the end of this meeting, another six children registered for the project. I don't know whether this means that people are afraid or not afraid. I can say only that there wasn't any panic. But the ultimate test of whether or not people are now afraid [to go to Israel] will be when it comes time to leave -- whether or not those kids will be on the plane."

But according to Jewish Agency statistics, the number of Russians emigrating to Israel has dropped dramatically this year, coinciding with the recent resumption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the first five months of 2001, some 4,149 Russian Jews left for Israel -- down 47 percent from the same period last year.

InterJewishClub (, a Russian Jewish chat and information web site, last month ran an unsigned editorial claiming that the "escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has killed off the desire for many Russian Jews to leave."

Unger, however, is reluctant to link the drop in emigration numbers to the growing tension in Israel. He says the change is due more to Russia's improving economic and political situation. The number of Russians emigrating to Israel, he says, peaked in the wake of Russia's 1998 financial crisis but has been dwindling ever since, as Russians begin to see more opportunities available at home.

Unger adds that this year's figures to date are only 7 percent lower than those preceding the 1998 crisis.

Unger also says that for many Russians, the threat of terrorism is close to home, and cites several incidents -- including the 1999 Moscow apartment block bombings, in which over 300 people were killed:

"We don't tell [people] that there isn't any danger [in Israel], but that such dangers exist here [in Russia] as well. I can give examples -- the big blast in the center of Moscow at Pushkin Square (in August 2000, killing 12) and the apartment building explosions that killed [a lot] of people."

Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up its diplomatic role in resolving the conflict. Over the weekend, Foreign Minister Ivanov made calls on the issue to Arafat, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to discuss the issue.

Ivanov called on the Israeli government to show restraint and be "faithful to the search for a political solution."

He also urged Arafat to make efforts to bring an end to attacks like the Friday bombing, which he said "only harmed the Palestinian people." He said Arafat should open a dialogue with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon based on the peace recommendations made by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell last month issued a report on the Middle East situation following an international investigation into the conflict.

On Monday, Foreign Ministry official Andrei Vdovin traveled to Israel to visit the occupied territories and also call on leaders in Jordan and Egypt -- two Arab countries that have been pushing for a settlement. Following talks with Peres in Jerusalem yesterday, Vdovin was careful to emphasize Russia's role in the peace proceedings:

"Russia will continue its efforts, hand-in-hand with [its] American co-sponsor, with the Europeans, with Egypt and Jordan, with the United Nations and, of course, in close cooperation with Israel and [the] Palestinian Authority so that finally, a solution, a peaceful, a political solution, may be found."

Some Russian politicians have urged Moscow to use the occasion to step up its diplomatic activity even more.

Dmitri Rogozin, the head of the Duma's International Affairs Committee, suggested that this was an appropriate time for Russia to solidify what he called its special role as an unbiased mediator in the peace process. In remarks quoted by Interfax, he said only Russia could help the region avoid "all-out war," adding that Russia "does not favor the one-sided backing of only one party in the conflict, as United States diplomacy does."

During an official Moscow visit last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Peres also stressed that Russia could play a special role as co-sponsor of the peace process. Peres told RFE/RL that the ongoing war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya "increases Russia's understanding of the problems Israel faces. The Russians don't want to fight the Chechen people, they only want to fight the Chechen terrorists." The key in both conflicts, Peres added, is to "distinguish between people and terrorists."