Russian FM Lavrov, in Israel, Calls for Anti-terror Coalition

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov independently called for an international anti-terrorist alliance yesterday, as Lavrov arrived on a scheduled visit to Israel.

Lavrov, who spoke to Haaretz shortly before last weekend's deadly terror attack on a Russian school, answered a follow-up question about the tragedy last night.

"I believe we have to draw lessons from this appalling crime," he said. "Terrorism can be stopped only by uniting efforts of all the states. Russia will fight this evil resolutely and uncompromisingly in the framework of the anti-terrorist coalition. We hope that the solidarity with our country shown by our partners will become a driving force behind the worldwide struggle against this scourge of the 21st century."

Even in last week's interview, however, Lavrov said that Russia is interested in closer cooperation with Israel on terrorism. "Our countries are both in the crosshair of terrorism," he said. "To fight this universal evil in a vigorous way is one of the areas where we can and should unite our efforts. During the forthcoming visit, we'll sign a memorandum on the deepening of cooperation between our foreign ministries, which provides the framework for the functioning of an anti-terrorism working group."

"[The] fight against terrorism has nothing in common with [the] fight against Islam," he added. "To present this fight as a kind of a religious conflict or a clash of civilizations would only play into the hands of terrorists who in reality have neither national nor religious identity."

Sharon, who spoke at yesterday's cabinet meeting before Lavrov's arrival, said of the Russian school attack: "Once again it has been proved that terror... does not distinguish between adults and children. Terror has no justification. This is the time for the free, decent and human world to unite and fight this terrible epidemic, which has no borders."

In a telephone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, Sharon offered condolences for the attack, and called for expanded intelligence coordination between the two countries. He said that "cooperation is essential in the fight against the dangerous phenomenon of terror, which does not distinguish [among victims] and harms women and children," according to a statement issued by his office. Sharon is scheduled to meet Lavrov today.

Lavrov's visit is part of a previously scheduled trip through the Middle East. But following the recent wave of violence in Russia, Israeli officials said the talks would likely focus on the need for greater anti-terror efforts.

"They understand now that what they have is not a local terror problem but part of the global Islamic terror threat," an Israeli official said.

In addition to the terror issue, Lavrov and Israeli officials will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lavrov related extensively to this issue in his interview with Haaretz, stressing that Russia remains committed to the road map.

"We hope that the initiative of the government of Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip can be used to move in this direction, though it is necessary to go further along the route of the road map," he said. "In our opinion, such large-scale changes... are hard to implement in the absence of coordination with the Palestinian side.

"As for the Quartet's role, it could participate in monitoring the process of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, as well as in creating conditions for the economic reconstruction of the Strip. Israel and the Palestinians would only gain from the cooperation with the Quartet, since it takes an honest and benevolent approach towards the concerns not only of the Palestinians, but also of the Israelis," he added.

Asked whether Russia is continuing the Soviet Union's traditional pro-Arab policy, he responded: "Russia's policy is neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israeli. It is directed at securing Russian national interests. Among those is the maintenance of close, friendly ties both with Arab countries and Israel."

With regard to Iran's nuclear program, Lavrov said that Russia intends to continue cooperating with Iran on the "peaceful use of nuclear energy," but "the prospects and scale of such partnership are defined with regard to Tehran's fulfillment of its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency. "