PM says worried Russian weapons will reach Hezbollah
Russian FM meets Olmert, Peres, announces aim to relaunch Israel-Syria peace talks at upcoming summit.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed concern over Russia's continuing supply of sophisticated weaponry to Syria and Iran during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Jerusalem on Thursday.
Olmert stressed Israel's fear that these weapons, including advanced anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles, could find their way into the hands of the Lebanon-based guerilla group Hezbollah, supported by Syria and Iran, which has threatened to destroy Israel.
Lavrov responded by saying that Russia has no knowledge of Hezbollah possessing Russian weapons, and that if Israel has any information on the topic, Russia would be happy to look into it.
During the meeting between the two officials, the Russian minister mentioned the Middle East peace summit to be held in Moscow in the coming months as a follow-up to last November's U.S.-hosted Annapolis conference, which resumed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Olmert, for his part, expressed doubts regarding the summit, saying "we must examine whether such a summit will serve the negotiations with the Palestinians, and only then to decide."
Lavrov inquired whether Israel would be willing to hold talks with Syria if Moscow were to mediate. "I am ready to begin a diplomatic process with Syria only if they distance themselves from the axis of evil and stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah," Olmert said in response.
While visiting Syria earlier Thursday, Lavrov announced that the Moscow summit would aim to relaunch peace talks between Israel and Syria, and that the issue of the Golan Heights would definitely be on the summit's agenda. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in 1967 and Syria demands that the territory be returned as one of the conditions for peace.
Lavrov also met with President Shimon Peres on Thursday, shortly before his meeting with Olmert. Peres told the visiting Russian minister that "talk of peace from Syria arouses distrust within Israel."
According to Peres, Syria is smuggling massive amounts of weapons to Hezbollah.
Lavrov said that peace in the Middle East will be possible only within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and all its Arab neighbors, alongside a solution of all internal issues between Israel and the Palestinians. "There is already a UN resolution, there is the road map and Russia is very interested in advancing the Annapolis process forward," Lavrov said.
After his meetings with Peres and Olmert, Lavrov assured Israel that Russia's Middle East policy will remain the same under President Dmitry Medvedev. He was elected this month to replace Vladimir Putin, who will stay on as Russia's prime minister.
Lavrov said Israel and Russia have some common goals, like fighting terrorism.
Lavrov arrived in Israel Thursday after visiting Syria. After meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Lavrov announced the upcoming peace summit, and said "we have not issued invitations but we're working out how to incorporate different suggestions."
Lavrov had announced plans to host the next Middle East peace conference after the Annapolis talks in November. He said on Thursday that everyone in Annapolis had agreed to the Moscow conference.
Russia's foreign minister also met members of the exiled leadership of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Damascus before flying to Israel.
Sergei Kiprichenko, Russia's ambassador to Syria, said Lavrov's meetings in Israel would try to nail down a more specific date for the conference.
"We are definitely talking about holding it this year. The Israeli-Syrian peace track is guaranteed to be on the agenda. Syria is very interested and is making efforts for the conference to succeed," he said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria would attend the Moscow meeting, although Israeli strikes against Gaza made it difficult for peace talks with Israel to resume.
"Syria cannot be absent from a major meeting that would discuss the Golan. But it does not make sense to restart the talks with Israeli massacres taking place in Gaza. An atmosphere has to be created first," Moallem said.
Syria agreed to attend the Annapolis conference only after a session devoted to the Syrian-Israeli peace track was included. No direct talks between the two countries took place at the meeting.
Peace talks between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over the extent of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, a plateau overlooking Damascus that Israel captured in 1967.
Tension between Syria and Israel have risen since then, with Syria dismissing Israeli demands to abandon support for Hamas and the Lebanese guerilla group Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006. Damascus also wants an Israeli commitment to withdraw fully from the Golan.
Israeli planes raided a military installation in Syria in September. The target was described by a number of Western analysts as a nuclear facility. Syria said the complex was a conventional military building under construction.
Diplomats in Damascus said Israel and Syria have since exchanged messages, mainly through Turkey, which have not advanced prospects for resuming peace talks.
Diplomats said one of the messages was a warning from Israel that it would strike Syria again if Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel in retaliation for the killing of a Hezbollah commander in Damascus in February. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the assassination of its top military operative Imad Mughniyah. Israel denied the accusation and Syria has kept a low profile about the issue.
Moscow was Syria's strongest backer in its struggle with Israel during the Communist era, but Russia has more recently been improving ties with Israel. Russia advised Syria not seek action against Israel at the United Nations Security Council after the Israeli raid on its territory.