Last week, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to visit Israel since the fall of the Soviet Union. He met with both Palestinian and Israeli leadership and even deigned to enter Israel's Holocaust memorial wearing a skullcap. But, while Israeli President Moshe Katzav called Putin "a friend of Israel" for the television crews, neither he nor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon danced and kicked up their heels at the visit. Despite the show, Putin is still determined to help Israel's enemies obtain weapons materials and technology that could eventually be used against Israel.
Putin worked to advance Russian's position with both Israelis and Palestinians during his brief tour through the Holy Land. He promoted general friendliness, visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust, and later placing flowers on the grave of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. He even surprised his hosts by offering to hold an international conference on the Middle East in Moscow this autumn. The proposal did not thrill its hearers with excitement, and the United States flat out rejected the notion.
"We believe there will be an appropriate time for an international conference," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "But we are not at that stage now, and I don't expect that we will be there by the fall."
While the visit made steps toward a positive relationship on the one hand, Putin alarmed Israel by his determination to proceed with plans to build up Syria's air defense system. Russia will provide Syria with SA-18 anti-aircraft missile batteries. The SA-18s have a relatively short range of 5.2 km and a maximum altitude of 3.5 km, but can be used to destroy planes, helicopters and low-flying unmanned planes.
Putin defended the decision saying, "The missiles we are providing to Syria are short-range anti-aircraft missiles that cannot reach Israeli territory. To come within their range, you would have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?" Unimpressed, Israel remains apprehensive that Syria might transfer the missiles to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups.
Putin also intends to provide the Palestinian security forces with 2 reconnaissance helicopters and 50 armored vehicles against Israel's wishes. An advisor to Ariel Sharon asserted that if the Palestinian forces faithfully worked to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and sincerely promoted law and order, then Israel would not object to their being armed with helicopters and armored vehicles. For the time being, however, Israel asserts that parts of the Palestinian military are still linked to terrorism.
In the end, Putin's visit was deemed more symbolic than anything else. Putin's failure to embrace freedom and democracy, his warm affection for the old Soviet Union and its oppressive ways, and most importantly, his expanding cooperation with Israel's enemies, make his overtures to Israel seem like nothing more than empty political rhetoric. Ezekiel 38-39 predicts that Israel's northern neighbors will one day violently attack the small Jewish state, but the passage also promises that God will intervene on Israel's behalf. In the meanwhile, we will continue to monitor Russia's growing involvement in the Middle East.