Russian President Vladimir Putin was always impressive to the Israeli leaders who met him. The Israelis liked his unabashedly open forcefulness, an appreciated his policy for being based on interests and not ideology and principles. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was particularly impressed by his insistence that Russia preserve her national honor. "We must learn from them," he told the reporters who accompanied him on his visit to Moscow.
Apparently Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not learn this lesson from Sharon. His rushed trip to the Kremlin today, for a meeting with Putin immediately following his visit to Iran, does not reflect Israeli national pride. It hints of pressure and concern and bowing before Russian power. And if Olmert thought that Putin does not pay attention to these details, he had an opportunity to hear yesterday from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about her embarrassing visit to Moscow last week. Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, sat waiting for Putin for 40 minutes in the foyer, and then he railed against them in front of the media.
The Prime Minister's Bureau found it difficult to offer convincing explanations for Olmert's unusual trip. According to the official version, he spoke with Putin on the telephone 10 days ago, and agreed to meet "soon." On Tuesday night the meeting was set, and the rushed timing stemmed from the pressured time tables. Olmert is going to Paris and London on Sunday, and after he returns he will stay in Israel until the Annapolis summit. Surely, there must be urgent issues for the two leaders to discuss, the kind that could not wait. What could it be?
As far as we know, in Moscow, Olmert will discuss two subjects: the growing concern in Israel at the progress in the Iranian nuclear program and the collapse of the international efforts to impose sanctions; and Israel's opposition to the large arms deals Syria is scheduled to sign with Iran and Russia.
This agenda raises a few questions. First, in all his speeches Olmert insists that Iran is "an international, not an Israeli, problem." If so, the rush to the Kremlin suggests precisely the opposite. If Israel fears standing at the head of the struggle against Iran, why then does the prime minister travel to meet Putin immediately after he returned from meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Have the priorities been altered and Iran has become "an Israeli problem"?
Or, is Israel trying to express her frustration with the international indifference, and especially the Russian insistence, to block any broadening of the sanctions against Iran?
What can Olmert say that will convince Putin to divert from this position? The prime minister believes that Putin is dealing with Iran cautiously, and in spite of his favorable declarations in Tehran, he is delaying the delivery of nuclear fuel to the plant at Bushehr. Olmert will probably try to strengthen this dual approach in Russia's foreign policy. The statements of President George W. Bush, that nuclear weapons in Iran may lead to World War III, show that Israel is not alone in the struggle and that it has an important ally in the White House.
But Israel appears to be trying to place its concerns before the international community. Following Olmert's trips to Russia, France and Britain, and the visits of senior U.S. officials in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will travel to Beijing, and this way they will have covered the Security Council in its entirety.
Another question has to do with the domestic politics. Several months ago, Olmert commended his Minister for Strategic Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, for his ties in Russia and the important role he is playing in dealing with the Iranian threat. Still, Olmert is traveling to Moscow with only his closes aides.
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