Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 149

In his first visit to Russia since taking over as head of the Israeli government last month, Prime Minister Ehud Barak yesterday met with President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, as well as with Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. Barak was expected to raise four main issues with his Russian hosts: advancing the Middle East peace process, particularly on the Syrian track; halting Russian missile technology leaks to Iran; strengthening Israeli-Russian bilateral ties; and addressing Israel’s concern over rising anti-Semitism in Russia. Barak was also expected to learn the details of talks which took place early last month in Moscow between Russian leaders and visiting Syrian President Hafez Assad (Ha’aretz, August 2).

During that visit Assad joined the Russian government in welcoming Barak’s election, and both pointed to that election as a potential breakthrough in the Middle East peace process. Now, in order to improve the chances for Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, Barak reportedly wants to involve Moscow more fully in the Middle East peace process. Not surprisingly, that sentiment coincides with Moscow’s own ambitions. Although the Soviet Union was cosponsor of the peace process which began in Madrid in 1991, Russia’s role in the region has since been marginalized.

One of the reasons, aside from its domestic problems, for Russia’s reduced role in the Middle East has been Jerusalem’s–and Washington’s–unhappiness over Russian military technology leaks to Iran. But that may be changing. According to Israeli reports, the Clinton administration has asked the Barak government to observe a three-month “reassessment” period, during which it will refrain from pressuring Moscow to stop the transfer of missile technology to Iran. The request, which was apparently discussed during Barak’s visit to Washington last month, is based on the Clinton administration’s hope that recently announced initiatives by the Kremlin will help at last to stop the illicit technology flow. The Clinton administration is aiming also to head off congressional action which might cut U.S. aid to Russia on the basis of its cooperation with Iran.

But Barak has reportedly also decided on his own to deemphasize, at least for the time being, the issue of Russian-Iranian technology transfers. That policy is said to be based, on the one hand, on a pragmatic acknowledgment that previous efforts to browbeat Russia on the issue have proven unproductive. But it is also said to be based on Israeli security establishment assessments which suggest it is now inevitable in any case that Iran will, in the next year or two, be able to produce missiles capable of reaching Israel. It is also believed, however, that those missiles will become a serious threat to Israel only when Iran is able to equip them with atomic warheads–a development which is not so imminent (Ha’aretz, August 2).

That these considerations may indeed be influencing Israeli policy toward Russia was suggested yesterday by Barak’s statement that he had accepted assurances, offered by Stepashin, that Moscow would try to control arms transfers to Iran. During his own meeting with Barak, meanwhile, Yeltsin called for improved Russian-Israeli relations, and said that Moscow hoped to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process. He also condemned manifestations of anti-Semitism in Russia, and vowed to punish those responsible for attacking synagogues and inciting religious and ethnic hatred (Reuters, AFP, Russian agencies, August 2; Ha’aretz, August 3).