Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 51

Despite proclamations of friendship on both sides, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s high profile two-day visit to Russia, which concluded yesterday, could not hide the fact that significant differences still divide Moscow and Tel Aviv. As Netanyahu himself admitted during remarks to reporters prior to his departure, he and various Russian leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, had not seen "eye-to-eye" on Israeli plans to build new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem. Those plans, and a separate disagreement over Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, have stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians, added to Netanyahu’s domestic political woes, and introduced tensions into Israel’s relations with the U.S.

Netanyahu appeared also to make little headway in Moscow on another issue of importance to Israel: Russia’s military and nuclear cooperation with Iran. Both Israel and the U.S. have accused Moscow of secretly transferring ballistic missile technology to Iran, but it appeared that Netanyahu could get little more from Russian leaders than flat denials that Moscow was involved in any such dealings. The outcome was much the same on the subject of Russian plans to complete construction of an Iranian nuclear power plant. On March 11 Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov dismissed the Israeli contention (held also by Washington) that the lucrative project could further Tehran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Yeltsin likewise reportedly assured Netanyahu that Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran remains at a "very rudimentary level." (Russian & Western agencies, March 11-12)

Immediately prior to Netanyahu’s arrival, the Israeli ambassador to Moscow had suggested that Tel Aviv is seriously interested in promoting military technical cooperation between Russia and Israel, and that Netanyahu would negotiate toward that end. (Interfax, March 7) Although there are sound economic reasons why this sort of cooperation might make sense, it seems likely that Israel is also motivated by the hope of diverting Moscow away from its current arms dealings with Israel’s Arab rivals. In the case of Iran, at least, that hope seems unjustified. Earlier this year a top official at Russia’s state arms trading company, Rosvooruzhenie, said that Russia’s military contracts with Iran now total some $1 billion, and that Moscow was considering reneging on a pledge to the U.S. that it would sign no new military deals with Iran starting in 1999. (AP, January 31)

Russia’s relations with Syria — another concern in Tel Aviv — are less clear. The Kremlin does exercise some influence in Damascus, and Netanyahu urged Moscow to prod Syria back to the negotiating table with Israel. (Itar-Tass, March 10) According to an Israeli newspaper, Syria has requested Moscow’s help in modernizing its armed forces, and Russian leaders are believed to be favorably inclined. But they are said first to be requiring that a solution be found to the problem of Syrian debts to Russia, estimated at more than $10 billion. (Ha’aretz [Tel Aviv], March 2)

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