Text size

Click here for more articles by Yossi Melman

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apparently failed on Tuesday to win a firm pledge that Moscow would halt the sale of advanced weapons to Iran and Syria.

Wrapping up a two-day visit, Olmert said only that he had succeeded in getting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to understand his fears that Russian-made missiles and other technology could fall into the hands of anti-Israel militants in the Middle East.

"My feeling is the Russian government understands well the Israeli position and is aware the possible influence such supplying could have on stability in the region," Olmert told reporters traveling with him.

But he gave no direct response to the question of whether Russia had agreed not to sell the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Tehran, which Israel sees as a threat to its existence, saying: "We discussed issues of weapons sales and the possibility of weapons sales."

Jerusalem is particularly concerned that sales of the missile system could threaten Israel's air superiority over Iran and Syria. And if Iran received these missiles, it would be able to protect its nuclear sites more effectively, making an aerial strike on these sites more difficult.

At the Moscow meeting, the two leaders did agree to open a permanent line of dialogue on defense issues and to set up a "strategic team" to continue discussing the weapons sales.

"Russia's policy will continue to be that it would not hurt Israeli security under any circumstances," Olmert said Medvedev told him in the course of a two-hour meeting at the Kremlin.

"We agree to upgrade our economic, defensive and strategic ties. We agreed to set up a new mechanism to ensure continuous contacts on these issues," he said.

After the meeting, Olmert said that Israel would not be prepared to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. However, he said there has been no change in his position on the matter.

"I have never announced that it Israel intends to attack Iran and I have not presented a specific plan for a military operation and I have not suggested a date for this. On the contrary, I've noted that there is exaggeration in Israeli statements on the subject," the prime minister said.

Olmert and Medvedev exchanged greetings before reporters before the meeting. The prime minister told the Russian leader of Israel's decision to return the Sergey Compound in Jerusalem to Russian ownership, a decision Medvedev openly praised.

PM invites Medvedev to visit Jerusalem

Olmert also invited Medvedev to visit Jerusalem. The Russian president said he would be happy to accept the invitation as it had been a long-time since he made such a trip.

The S-300 missile, called the SA-10 in the west, has a range of 150 kilometers (90 miles) and is capable of striking a plane up to 30 kilometers (18 miles) above the ground.

On Monday, Russia's arms export monopoly denied that it plans to deliver the S-300 missiles to either Iran or Syria, the Interfax news agency reported.

"We have no information of this kind," a spokesman for Rosoboronexport said when asked about potential sales of the sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to Tehran or Damascus.

During his flight to Moscow Monday, Olmert was asked whether he could influence Russia's policy on arms sales and replied, "I don't want to boast." But his chances of dissuading Medvedev from selling arms to Iran and Syria are widely considered small.

Russian sources told Haaretz there would be no change in Russia's position. They said Russia would not provide any Middle Eastern country with offensive weapons that could disrupt the region's stability, but would consider any request for defensive weapons.

But Israeli sources said they did not know whether Russia has already signed agreements to provide the advanced missile systems to Iran and Syria, or even whether it intends to do so, as the Russian media have reported over the past year.

Lavrov vows to push Hamas to advance Shalit talks

Olmert landed Monday at Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport and proceeded to a meeting and dinner with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who vowed to push Hamas to advance talks regarding the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.

Olmert told the journalists accompanying him that in addition to Russian arms sales to the Middle East, he and his hosts would discuss Iran's nuclear program and Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians and Syrians. He said the Russians "have a special interest" in the peace talks.

However, Russia was not expected to accede to Israel's request that it change its position on Iran's nuclear program. Russia objects to harsher international sanctions on Iran and has already provided low-grade enriched uranium for Iran's nuclear reactor in Bushehr, which is due to begin operating next year. Moscow is also in preliminary negotiations with Tehran to build two more reactors for electricity production in Iran.

Olmert and Medvedev were also to discuss the situation in Georgia following its war with Russia in August. However, Israeli sources said, Russia commended Israel for having stopped its arms sales to Georgia completely even before the war and restricted its sales to defensive systems before then. Consequently, this issue is no longer a strain on bilateral relations, the sources said.

Olmert reiterated that Israel would have to give up most of the West Bank and agree to territorial exchanges in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. Asked whether his statement reflected the views of prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, he said: "My statement reflected my opinion, but this is what the negotiations were based on. She [Livni] was a party to everything, but she does not necessarily agree with every one of my positions."

Asked whether his statements would not bind Livni and the next government, Olmert replied: "I'm not holding Livni to everything I've said, but I believe what I said reflects the negotiations and they will continue in this spirit."