Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Baraks visit yesterday to Moscow is being seen by Russia as a new opening to increase its role in the Middle East peace process. Our Moscow correspondent reports.
Moscow, 3 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Supported by a majority of Israel's 800,000 Russian immigrants, Israel's new Prime Minister Ehud Barak is seen as an Israeli leader who will be sympathetic to Russian views. Many commentators say that Baraks visit to Moscow -- coming as it does less than three months after his election -- only confirms this.
During his one-day visit, Barak met President Boris Yeltsin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin.
Yeltsin was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying that he wants to "rebuild Russia-Israeli ties," which were strained under Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Officially a co-sponsor with the United States of the Mideast peace process, Moscow has nevertheless always played a secondary role to Washington. Now, however, Russia wants to restart its diplomatic contribution, it seems, by capitalizing on its good relations with Syria.
Russian-Syrian ties were reaffirmed during Syrian President Hafez el-Assads visit to Moscow last month. The visit culminated in a military and technical cooperation agreement under which Moscow is reported to be planning to sell 2,000 million dollars worth of arms to Damascus.
Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin says he sees Moscow as a diplomatic broker in the Middle East. Stepashin said he and Barak agreed that Russia could play a more active part in the settlement of the Middle East situation and in the normalization of Israeli-Syrian relations. He said Israel, Syria, Russia and the U.S. "must not let this chance slip by."
Although Israel and Syria have both expressed their intention to resume peace negotiations frozen for the last three years, relations between the two nations are still tense.
Washington lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Therefore, Russias positive relations with Syria could be a trump card for Moscow.
Analyst Andrei Piontkowski is head of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Research. He says Moscow has specialized in taking on the most difficult diplomatic clients, like Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He says that Russia has managed to keep an open channel to Syria through Assad. He says such a relationship may increase the chances of the Middle East peace process succeeding.
The Reuters news agency, however, quotes Israeli government officials as insisting that Barak still views the United States as its chief conduit to Syria and will not seek to turn Moscow into its main intermediary with Damascus.
In an interview with Russian television NTV yesterday, Barak paid tribute to Russias role in the peace process but made it clear that the U.S. still has the lead role:
"I am convinced that no one can ignore Russia. All the more, no country in the Middle East [can ignore Russia]. Russia was very important also during those years when we had an active conflict with our Arab neighbors. Russia is no less important today by being a factor helping to mobilize the international community towards actions aiming at full-scale peace in the Middle East. I am not saying that Russia is playing exactly the same role as the United States. But I am absolutely convinced that Russias part is priceless and very important."
During his talks in Moscow, Barak also raised Israel's concern over the alleged transfer of nuclear weapons technology from Russia to Iran. Stepashin -- who had partial access to arms export control issues as former interior and security minister -- reiterated to Barak a promise he made to U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Stepashin said that Russia is not interested in any nation obtaining nuclear weapons, including Iran, and that if there is a "suspicion or even better a fact" that Russia is providing technology that could help in the creation of nuclear arms, "we are ready to look into it."