Ariel Sharon has a custom: Whenever he makes an appearance before Russian-speakers, he'll always correct the translator and toss in a sentence or two in Russian. That's what he did at political rallies, with the Jewish community in Moscow, and even with the Russian president.
This week, Vladimir Putin hosted him in the Kremlin for the third time, and Sharon repeated the trick. It's not clear how the Russian leader regards such gestures. Putin is a cold fish, with a piercing gaze at his interlocutor, who asks sharp questions. There's no small talk or joking with him. Even when he sent a sexist remark to Minister Tzipi Livni, nobody noticed any smile on his face or wryness in his tone.
On his way home, Sharon said he should go to Moscow more often, and it's easy to understand why. "They don't deal with nonsense here, like the Americans, and don't talk about the fence and humanitarian problems of the Palestinians," said a senior source in Sharon's entourage.
The visit had very little political content, which focused mostly on Sharon's opposition to a Russian foreign ministry plan for the UN Security Council to adopt the road map. Before the trip, the Russian plan stirred no interest whatsoever in Jerusalem, on the assumption the Americans would veto it.
At the Kremlin things sounded much different. Sharon warned that the proposal would harm Israeli security, abandoning it to the hostility of the UN. Putin promised to reconsider. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, more familiar with the details, was less impressed.
Dov Weisglass told Putin that the Palestinians had in effect accepted the 14 Israeli comments and corrections to the road map because the implementation had begun according to the Israeli interpretation. "That's not what I heard from Mahmoud Abbas," Ivanov said coolly the next day. Sharon raised the Iranian nuclear issue and once again heard from the Russians that they won't take any risks in their deals with the Iranians despite the financial temptation.
Putin does not seem very interested in the Israeli-Arab conflict. As far as he is concerned, Israel is important as the state of the Jews and because of its inroads in America. He keeps track of terrorist attacks out of concern for the fate of ex-Russians in Israel. It is important to him that he not be accused of anti-Semitism because of his campaign against the Jewish "oligarchs."
Sharon found himself in a sensitive position in Moscow: He had to worry about the Jews, avoid intervening in an internal Russian affair, and not anger his friends on the American right who vehemently attacked Putin.
In a prepared response to a question from journalists who gingerly raised the issue of the arrest of tycoons, Sharon said Putin's explanations satisfied him. William Safire, the New York Times columnist who is very close to Sharon, was more frank, and wrote that the prime minister told Putin in Russian that he made a mistake by arresting oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The visit took place at a time when Israel hatred is back in the headlines, with the hostile poll in Europe and the insults from Malaysia. There is a special interest in anti-Semitism in Russia after the Khodorkovsky arrest, the publication of a book by the leader of the Communist opposition accusing Putin of "Zionization" of the Russian leadership, and the protest against the commemoration of Nazi collaborators in the Baltic countries.
Putin wanted to use Sharon to improve his "Jewish angle," and at the beginning of the meeting pushed aside the discussion of the Middle East to highlight the commemoration of the Holocaust. Then he complained to Sharon that American Jewish leaders did not keep their promise to help him by influencing U.S. policy regarding Chechnya.
The Russians believe Israeli and American foreign policy is closely coordinated down to the last detail. Sharon tried to persuade Ivanov that's not the case, and "we even have differences of opinion," but in Moscow they know that Sharon reports to Washington before and after every meeting with Putin.
Besides, it doesn't hurt if they think Israel has a magical influence in Washington.
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