At the ceremony Thursday in the sculpture garden of the President's Residence in Jerusalem, Russian President Vladimir Putin will unveil a sculpture by the artist Zurab Tseritely. The sculpture, which represents the destruction of the Jewish people, is a gift from the Russian president, who wishes in this manner to express solidarity with the Holocaust of the Jewish people.

This is no small matter. The Soviet Union lost more than 25 million people in World War II and for decades refused to look upon the Holocaust as something unique in human history. By his gift, Putin wants to say he is sensitive to one of the founding events in the Jewish people's revival in the modern era. The Russian president's gesture is particularly important in view of the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Russia.

The Russian president's official visit to Israel is doubly important for further reasons. This is a historic visit, the first by a leader of one of the largest and most important countries in the world. Israel will forever cherish the support by the Soviet Union and its satellites in the communist bloc for the United Nations partition plan of 1947 and the military aid during the War of Independence. But later on the Soviet Union changed its policy. It supported the Arab countries, armed them, snowballed the Middle East into the Six-Day War and prevented its Jews from immigrating to Israel.

Since the collapse of Soviet communism, the trend has switched once more. New relations have been developing between Israel and Russia over the past 15 years. Some 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Russian speakers, originally from the former Soviet Union. The cultural ties are an important basis for promoting cooperation and understanding between the two countries. A diplomatic-strategic dialogue is taking place between Jerusalem and Moscow. The annual trade balance totals $1.2 billion and is on the rise. Israel buys 70 percent of its crude oil in Russia. There is military cooperation and operational manifestations of intelligence sharing, aimed at combating fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

Nonetheless, some severe disputes will cloud the visit. Russia is building a nuclear reactor in Iran that will be provided with Russian uranium this year. Another Israeli concern is the supply of Russian anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and the possibility of their "overflowing" to Hezbollah. In his meetings in Moscow, Ariel Sharon boasted of his Russian roots and declared his friendship with the Russian president. But the friendship wasn't translated into any real success. Among other reasons because of narrow-mindedness. Part of the Russian leadership has yet to free itself of prejudice and past communist conceptions, while some Israeli leaders treat Russia with contempt and view it as excess diplomatic baggage.

However, if Israel is interested in Russian consideration for its defense needs, it must also display understanding for the Russian interests in the region and be attentive toward the Russian president's desire to play a real role in the Middle East. Israel should be interested in strengthening relations with Russia.

President Putin's visit is an opportunity to clear long-standing encumbrances and amend past wrongs, and ought to serve as a lever for bolstering cooperation, friendship and understanding between both peoples.

Welcome President Putin.