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Wary Of Syrian Arms Deal, Olmert Plans Russia Trip

Olmert wants to "find out what Russia is planning to sell," and could try to block the deal.
JERUSALEM -- Israeli officials have said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to visit Russian President Dmitry Medvedev amid concern about reports Moscow is considering arming Syria with advanced missiles.

One said Olmert might try to block such a deal.

Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said final details for a visit had yet to be settled. Another government official said the trip would take place in the first half of September. A Kremlin spokesman said he did not rule out such a meeting.

The Israeli official said Olmert, who plans to resign over a corruption scandal some time after his party elects a new leader on September 17, wanted to "find out what Russia is planning to sell."

"Depending on the nature of the deal, he may try to block it," the official added.

Medvedev telephoned Olmert earlier this week ahead of a visit to Russia by Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Israeli officials said.

This week, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a diplomatic source in Moscow as saying Syria and Russia were working on complex deals involving Damascus buying anti-aircraft and antitank missile systems.

Following talks on August 21 between Medvedev and al-Asad, Syria's state news agency denied reports in Russian media that al-Asad had said he was ready to host Russian Iskander missiles, which would be able to hit much of Israel and which are designed to evade antimissile systems.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the United States was "obviously very concerned about reports that Russia may be providing weapons systems to Syria."

"They don't contribute to regional stability. And, again, I urge the Russians not to go through with these sales, if there is an intent to go through with them," he said.

Russia has said any arms sold to Syria would be "defensive."

Olmert made a hastily scheduled visit to Russia in October to lobby the Kremlin to support international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear development program.

Israel remains anxious not to antagonize Moscow and to seek its support for Israel's own policies in the Middle East.

Since Russia's clash with Georgia this month, Israel has sought to deflect criticism from Moscow over military equipment and training Israelis have provided to Georgia.

Israel and Syria have conducted indirect peace talks since May under Turkish mediation, after direct negotiations failed in 2000 in a dispute over the terms for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

Olmert has said he will pursue peace talks until he steps down over a fraud and bribery investigation. His party holds a leadership election on September 17, although it is possible that Olmert may stay on as prime minister for some time after that.