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Putin Addresses Israeli Concerns Over Russian Middle East Policy

Vladimir Putin (r) shakes hands with Israeli PM Ariel Sharon
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Israeli officials Thursday on the second day of a visit aimed at strengthening ties with the Jewish state. The Russian leader responded to criticism of some of his country's Middle East policies, saying they pose no threat to Israel's security.

Despite the pomp and ceremony Israel put on for the Russian leader, the Putin visit has been overshadowed by Russia's support for Syria and Iran.

The Russian leader announced before the start of this trip his country had agreed to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. The Kremlin also supplies Iran with most of the technology for its nuclear program. Israel objects to both programs.

Mr. Putin addressed those concerns directly when he said after meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav that the arms being sold to Syria pose no threat to Israel.

The Russian leader also said that Russia supports only the peaceful use of nuclear power in Iran and that Tehran is required to return depleted uranium to Moscow so that it cannot be used to make weapons.

Mr. Putin conceded, however, that existing safeguards are not enough and Iran must be made to agree to a nuclear inspection program.

Still, his statements that those policies do not pose a threat to Israeli security do not satisfy leaders of the Jewish state. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said again today that Russia is selling components to Iran that can be used to make nuclear weapons and that is a cause for concern.

Mr. Putin arrived in Israel Wednesday evening from Egypt where he announced that he 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 summer. They say conditions are not yet right for such a multi-party conference.

Washington was cool to the idea too. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that 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 on Friday.