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Putin Makes First Visit to Israel by Russian President


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Israel and Russia have enjoyed close ties since the collapse of the Soviet Union when rules were relaxed to allow Russians to emigrate. Nearly one million Russians took advantage of the policy change to move to Israel.

The two countries have other issues in common, including conflict with Islamic militants.

But there are problems in the relationship as well.

At the top of the list is Mr. Putin's plan, announced just before he started this Middle East trip, to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

Gerald Steinberg of the Begin/Sadat Center for Strategic Studies questions the timing of Mr. Putin's announcement.

"It is very curious to know why Putin decided to make this very defiant statement before he came to Israel,” said Mr. Steinberg. “That Russia is going to sell these missiles to Syria. It does not really make any sense that a leader from a major country would do that, would wave that red flag before the first official state visit by a Russian leader."

Mr. Steinberg says no matter what the Russian leader's intention in making the announcement it is an issue that his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon, is certain to leave on the agenda when they two meet.

Also sure to come under discussion during Mr. Putin's visit is the issue of a number of wealthy fugitives from justice in Russia who are now residing in Israel.

Three men wanted on fraud charges are associates of Jewish businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time head of the Yukos oil company, whose nearly year-long trial on tax evasion and fraud charges is coming to a close in Russia.

Media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, who fled Russia after he was charged with financial crimes, lives in Israel too, as does Boris Berezovsky, a one-time Kremlin insider charged with fraud after falling out with Mr. Putin.

All of the wanted men say the charges against them are politically motivated because of their support for opponents of Mr. Putin. It is a charge the Kremlin denies.

Mr. Putin travels to Israel from Egypt, where he held talks with President Hosni Mubarak on a number of issues, including Middle East peace. In Cairo, Mr. Putin offered to host a Mideast peace conference later this year in Moscow.

Russia is co-sponsor of the "Road Map" peace plan along with the United States, United Nations, and the European Union.

Mr. Putin has said he wants to boost Russian ties in the Middle East, where the Kremlin held tremendous influence during much of the Cold War.

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