Sharon to Russia for 'Working Visit'

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to depart Sunday for a "working" visit to Russia where he is due to meet President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov.

The 48-hour trip, which has been termed a working visit not an official visit, was scheduled several months ago. The importance of the visit, however, has increased the in light of the disagreement between the United States and Russia over Iraq.

The significance of this visit is illustrated by the inclusion on the trip of outgoing Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, who is slated to take over as head of the National Security Council. Over the years, the Council, under the leadership of outgoing head Major General Uzi Dayan, has developed a close working relation with its counterpart in Moscow.

Diplomatic sources say that Sharon will seek to convince the Russian leadership of the need to alter its stance on Iraq. Sensitive intelligence information regarding Iraq's non-conventional weapons and missile capabilities are expected to be shared with Moscow.

Sharon is also expected to reach an understanding with the Russian leadership that Jerusalem reserves the right to respond should Israel be attacked by Iraqi missiles, or sustain heavy losses as a result of an Iraqi attack.

Among other subjects to be raised in Moscow is the transfer of Russian technology and materials, as well as expertise, in the construction of nuclear reactors in Iran, and the precarious situation in southern Lebanon where the waters of the Wazzani River are being diverted by the Lebanese government.

Preparations for the trip sparked a dispute between the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry as not one single official from the Foreign Ministry was included in Sharon's entourage, as is customary.