A Russian arms deal with Syria has drawn a sharp protest from Israel. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, Israel is warning that the sale would strengthen radical elements in the Middle East and destabilize the region.

Israel has harshly criticized a plan by Russia to sell advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Israeli officials say those missiles will eventually wind up in the hands of the Islamic guerrilla group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah fired over 4,000 rockets at Israel during the Lebanon War last year, and both Israel and the United States say the weapons were supplied by Syria and Iran.

Silvan Shalom is a former Israeli foreign minister from the opposition Likud party. He told Israel Radio that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a negative role in the Middle East.

"President Putin is playing with fire and it might burn a very big fire here in the region," he said. "And Israel cannot stand [for] it and cannot live with the idea that Syria will get such kind of a system."

Shalom says Russia is contributing to a dangerous arms race that could destabilize the region.

"What needs to be done is to reduce the number of weapons that we have in the region not to increase it," he said.

Borrowing a term from President Bush, Shalom described the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah alliance as an "axis of evil," which is being strengthened by Moscow.

"Unfortunately, President Putin is trying to revive the Soviet Empire by helping every enemy of the United States - let's say that every enemy of the U.S. is a friend of Russia, and a friend of the U.S. becomes, maybe, an enemy of Russia," added Shalom.

Relations between Israel and Russia have taken a turn for the worse since the Lebanon War when it became clear that Hezbollah was inflicting heavy casualties with anti-tank missiles made in Russia. The new missiles are said to be even more effective and able to pierce the armor of Israel's heavily-fortified Merkava tanks.

In addition, Israel is extremely concerned about Russian aid to Iran's nuclear program.

"What Russia needs to do is totally different," said Shalom. "It needs to help the United States to impose pressure and sanctions on Iran to stop its efforts to develop [a] nuclear bomb and in the same time to push the Syrians out of the hands of Iran and to move toward peace with Israel."

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres warned that the Russian missile sale to Syria is pushing the region toward war.