Putin 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Russia is not the most press-friendly embassy to be working out of Tel Aviv, and on-the-record interviews with its top diplomats in Israel are few and far between.
But with the embassy currently in between ambassadors - Gennady Terasov has just left and Peter Stegniy is due to take up the position in a couple of weeks - Andrey Demidov, the number two diplomat and acting ambassador, agreed this week to sit down with The Jerusalem Post and explain Russia's current Middle East policies.
These policies - from the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, to its opposition to widespread sanctions against Iran, to its loud applause for the Mecca agreement and call on the world community to lift economic sanctions against the PA - are causing their share of consternation in Jerusalem.
But in a sparsely furnished, curtain-drawn reception room in Russia's sea-front embassy, Demidov had ready answers to questions about these positions, giving a rare peek into the thinking guiding Moscow's Middle East stance.
President Putin was just in Saudi Arabia - is it time for the Saudis to go public with ties with Israel?
Saudi Arabia is an active player, and an influential player in the region. It advanced the very important initiative in settling the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. And it played a crucial role in the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas. If we wish for an overall settlement in the region, we have to try to improve the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But is it time for something public?
Those are bilateral issues. But you should understand, the Saudis see themselves as one of the leaders of the Muslim world, so they will take direct steps only after the relations between Israel and the Palestinians are fully accepted.
There is much talk about developing a moderate Arab coalition as a brake on the Shi'ites and on Iran. Does Russia agree with this?
We have our own concept: There should be peace, security and cooperation for each and every country - Shi'ite, Sunni, whatever. We believe that the coalition should not be against someone, but in favor of a peaceful solution.
We have a lot of problems in the region. One of them is the Iranian nuclear problem. Yes that is a problem, we admit it, and we are taking a productive role in settling this problem. My personal opinion is that when the Sunni countries have tight economic ties with Iran, political problems will disintegrate.
Do you agree that Islamic extremism - Hizbullah, Iran, Hamas - is a threat to stability in the region?
All extremism is a threat to stability. But let's look deeper about what caused this problem - economic inequality and economic backwardness in some countries. If Saudi Arabia and Iran find ways to alleviate their differences and settle the problem of poverty, there will be no extremism. The basis of extremism is poverty.
That is interesting, considering all those who say the core of the problem in the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The history of the Middle East conflict in general started here, in historical Palestine, in Eretz Yisrael, so if we settle political problems between Israel and Palestine, other issues will be settled as well. But, still, don't forget misery among the Palestinians.
Misery is what caused the Palestinian terror. Take a look at Gaza - 1.5 million people are scattered on a very small piece of land. There are no jobs, no money, nothing.
Why did Russia say immediately after the Mecca Agreement that it was time to lift the economic boycott on the PA?
First of all, our position is that this new government that will emerge from the Mecca agreements has yet to be formed. This government has not formulated its policies. Our idea is to judge the new government by its deeds, not declarations. Of course, if this new government still continues the way of terror, we should impose sanctions and economic pressure. But on the other hand, history has shown that sanctions and blockades do not provide a solution.
Both the Palestinians and Iranians have to be encouraged; they have to be offered something. That is why we believe it is quite timely to lift economic sanctions against the Palestinians.
But right now, wouldn't it be a good idea to wait a bit to see what develops?
Israel has already transferred $100 million to the Palestinians. Isn't that a break in the sanctions?
Israel says that money isn't going to Hamas.
The same is true with us. We just transferred $10m. to [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen and we were blamed by Israel for helping Hamas.
How about the three international principles. Should they remain in place?
Yes, those are the principles of Quartet, and Russia is an active player in the Quartet. Those principles should remain and the Palestinian leadership, government - whatever - should and must accept those principles.
And what if they don't?
Then let us discuss it; we have to convince them.
And if you can't?
We will try, and we think we will manage to convince them. Look, they are people like we are, they want to have their state, and they want to have their peaceful life, a future for their children. I believe they will want a peaceful, prosperous life for their land and their people.
There was a lot of economic pressure over the last year, but it didn't get Hamas to bend. Why do you think Hamas will change its position now?
The economic pressure has failed; it has created no positive result. This is the same with Iran: Economic pressure can do nothing, it can only increase misery among people and that will result in terrorism, because they will have no other options.
But if economic, non-violent pressure doesn't work, what will? Hamas has said it will not recognize Israel
Sure, but why do they say this? Because Israel does not recognize the Hamas government. There is a very simple thing to do - talk, talk. Even the worst worst enemies can sit at a table and talk about settling their disputes and disagreements. Why are they not talking?
Would Russia sit down with Chechen terrorists and talk?
First of all the Chechen problem is an internal problem of Russia. We decide how to settle the problem.
Secondly, we have already almost settled the problem by peaceful means. We have created a government, parliament and judicial system that has adopted a constitution with law enforcement agencies. We talked with them, and they accepted it.
But I repeat this is not a [similar] example; still Israel could learn from the Russian experience. We can see that the Chechen problem is almost solved. We can see that there is no more war, no more fighting, of course there are some terrorist acts from time to time.
But will Russia talk to Chechen terrorists, which is what you are asking of Israel?
With whom [should we talk]? Give me the names. Those who insisted on staying terrorists were eliminated; some of them are hiding in so-called democratic countries like the UK. But those who gave up their weapons, their terrorist activities, we accepted them.
But Israel's problem is that Hamas is not willing to give up its terrorist activities.
Both parties should say, "Okay, we want to give up war, we want to give up violence on both sides, let us sit around the table and talk." Why not?
What should Israel talk about with Hamas?
A Palestinian state, borders, cooperation.
Even though they don't recognize Israel's right to exist anywhere?
Eventually they will, because Israel is a reality that no one can deny. Even Arab states recognize Israel - like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, etc. Israel is a reality. You cannot deny the existence of Israel. It is here. It will be here.
Is Russia maintaining contacts with Hamas now?
We did, about a year ago, but now we decided that it would be better to hold contacts with the Palestinians through Abu Mazen.
Does Russia have enough of a say in the Quartet, or is it just being led by the US?
Of course Russia has a big say, and of course the Americans have certain dictatorial ambitions, that's the reality.
Dictatorial ambitions, where?
Everywhere. But the participation of each and every player in the Quartet is important. If the Americans at present have no specific ideas how to settle the issue, then others will announce projects, ideas and initiatives. So far the Americans have nothing. And I repeat, they have dictatorial ambitions, and they are quite jealous of someone else's initiatives. Quite jealous.
So what's the Russian initiative?
To lift the sanctions, to try to start talking, to resume talks.
Is the Russian idea to go back to the 1967 lines?
We believe the border will be the one agreed upon between Israel and the Palestinians.
But let's say we can't decide and need outside help.
Okay, there could be international meditation. You know there are many borders based on international mediation.
Is Israel retaining settlement blocs acceptable to Russia?
If it is acceptable for the Palestinians. We will not enforce our visions. If the Palestinians agree, then fine.
Have the Russian comments after Mecca caused tension with Israel?
Not at all. Russia and the Israelis understand each other. Our relations with Israel are quite sincere. We openly discuss almost each and every problem we have between us. And we understand that what Russia does is not aimed against Israel. What we do is an attempt to advance the situation toward a solution.
Is there intelligence cooperation between Russia and Israel?
Of course there is, in the field of fighting terrorism. We are interested in fighting terrorism, and we are assisting each other.
Russia has a lot of interests in the Arab world. Doesn't that outweigh its ties with Israel?
Of course we have a lot of interests in the Arab world - historic, economic ties. But we also have big interests here. More than one million of our compatriots live here. Therefore we have to develop our relations in every field. Economy first, tourism, culture, education.
Has the issue of Russian weapons in Hizbullah possession been settled with Israel?
It was discussed after the Lebanon war. We gave explanations to Israeli officials; they were satisfied. What we have now [reports that new Russian weapons are being smuggled into Hizbullah] is propaganda.
You're saying Israel hasn't given Russia any intelligence information about Russian arms smuggled in to Lebanon?
Intelligence information was only given on weapons found during the war. No new proof. It's just media noise.
Has Russia delivered the short-range anti-aircraft missiles to Syria?
We delivered short-range air defense missiles. We explained to the Israelis that those missiles could only be fired from a truck. Israel's concern was that they could be detached and launched from a shoulder. We said it is impossible, because if they are detached from the truck they can't fire.
Did the Syrians ask for long-range missiles?
They asked, but we said no for the time being.
President Putin gave a promise to [Ariel] Sharon not to do anything to change the regional balance of power.
How about the anti-aircraft missiles sold to Iran?
Those are air defense missiles. The Israelis ask why we supply those missiles, and I ask you my question, do you want Iran to be defenseless?
Well, yes, actually.
What for, are you going to attack them?
Those missiles are giving Iran insurance to develop nuclear weapons
Of course not. We are interested in a nuclear-free Iran. Iran is our neighbor on the southern border. Our policy with Iran is based on several principles. First of all we want to have friendly relations with our neighbor, our southern neighbor. We want to have economic cooperation with our southern neighbor. And we do not want to have a nuclear power on our southern border
Still, by giving them a missile umbrella, aren't you giving them the ability to build nuclear weapons?
Those missiles can't provide a 100 percent defense umbrella. They are not very numerous or very sophisticated. But, again, why don't you want them to have a defense umbrella?
You know Israel's concerns.
The Iranians can ask you, "What about Israel's nuclear weapons?"
But Israel has never said it wants to wipe Iran off the map.
We are committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and we do not want new nuclear powers emerging. The international community has good experience in convincing certain countries, like Brazil, to give up nuclear ambitions, and in getting countries like South Africa to renounce nuclear weapons that existed already. That's why we believe that we can convince Iran that they will not require nuclear weapons.
And if you can't?
I believe we will succeed, I'm optimistic.
You supported sanctions against Iran in December. Will you support stronger sanctions now at the UN?
It depends what kind and what for, what the purpose is.
Do you agree with French President Jacques Chirac's comment that the world may have to come to grips with a nuclear Iran?
We want Iran to be nuclear-free, and we will work in that direction. Iran is very far away from France, and he [Chirac] can say whatever he wants, he is going to leave [office soon]. But for us it is crucial, important to have a nuclear free-Iran. It is close to our borders.
Are you really afraid of an Iranian attack on Russia?
What if there is a change of regime? The Americans are trying to change the regime. What if the ayatollahs go, and there is a new Shah? The Shah was very hostile to my country. First of all we want to have a friendly regime in Iran, and secondly we want it to be nuclear-free.
And the regime of the ayatollahs is friendly to Russia?
So you don't accept what Chirac said that one or two bombs wouldn't be that bad?
We are not rejecting or accepting, but we believe he is incorrect. We don't agree with him.