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Putin Meets With Israeli Officials


Vladimir Putin is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today, as he continues his visit to Israel - the first ever by a Russian president.

Mr. Putin met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, Thursday morning, and both men expressed the desire for closer ties. The Russian leader is to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, later today.

He arrived in Israel, Wednesday evening, from Egypt, where he announced that wants to host a Middle East peace conference in Moscow.

The suggestion was warmly welcomed by the Palestinians; but not the Israelis, who are focusing on their plan to withdraw all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, later this year. They say conditions are not yet right for such a multi-party conference.

Analysts are questioning why Mr. Putin made his suggestion and also why he decided to come to region, now. Stephanie Hoffman is a Russian expert, formerly of Hebrew University. She says no significant agreements are expected and she wonders if Mr. Putin is merely trying to re-establish a Russian role in the peace process.

"One could say that Russia is trying to reassert itself and to show that is had both weight and input among all the parties in [the] Middle East settlement process," said Ms. Hoffman.

Washington, too, gave a cool reception to the idea of Moscow talks. White House spokesman Scott McClellan says the time has not yet come for an international conference.

The internationally backed peace plan, known as the "road map," calls for such a conference during its second phase; but neither party has yet fulfilled the requirements of the first phase.

Mr. Putin meets with Palestinian leaders, Friday.

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