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(photo credit: AP)
Russia will not invite Hamas or push a "Syrian track" at a Middle East peace conference it hopes to hold in Moscow by mid-year, visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in meetings in Jerusalem on Sunday.
The conference, which the Russians are describing as a follow-up to the November 2007 Annapolis conference, has been on the agenda since then, but has not generated much Israeli or American interest.
The situation has changed a bit now, at least in Jerusalem, both because Israel was pleased with the "balanced" and even "positive" role played by Russia during the Operation Cast Lead, and because Israel would prefer that Russia host an international Mideast conference rather than the French.
Government officials are concerned that French President Nicolas Sarkozy would use an international conference in Paris, which he is trying to sell, to push the Syrian track to the forefront, perhaps even eclipsing the Palestinian issue, something Jerusalem is not interested in at the present time.
Israeli government officials said that Israel had a number of discussions with the Russians during the Gaza military operation, and the Russians were not critical of the operation, but rather just wanted to understand what was happening.
In a veiled reference to the French, one government official said the Russian statements did not include statements about a disproportionate use of force, in contrast "to some of the statements from out friends."
Lavrov arrived Sunday on a regional trip that will also take him to the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Bahrain and Oman. He met President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday, and was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday.
Peres' office put out a statement quoting Lavrov as saying Russia was interested in "convening an international peace conference with the participation of the entire Arab world and the central players in the ."
Lavrov said Israel would be invited to participate in the conference, which would take place in a "positive atmosphere" during the first half of the year.
He said that the conference would be a continuation of the Annapolis process "in the sprit of the principles of the Arab league initiative."
Since the new government has not yet been set up, Israel did not commit to participation, but the sense was that Jerusalem was much more open to the idea now than in the past.
Peres told Lavrov that Israel wanted peace with all the Arab states in the region.
"Our hands will always be stretched out in peace, but we cannot accept a situation where rockets are fired on our citizens," he said.
Lavrov, according to Peres's office, said that Russia, which has maintained its contacts with Hamas, was trying to get the organization to join the peace process, "but they do not speak in one voice."
In addition to discussing the peace conference and the Gaza operation, Lavrov also discussed the controversy revolving around reports that Russia intended to sell state of the art missile defense systems to Syria and Iran, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue.
Regarding the arms issue, Lavrov reiterated the Russian position that it would not introduce arms into the region that would change the strategic balance, and also expected that Israel would take a similar position regarding its arms sales to Georgia.
As far as Iran was concerned, Lavrov said that Russia was very opposed to a nuclear Iran, and repeated Moscow's assessment that it believed Iran wanted nuclear technology, but not nuclear weapons. He said Russia would not accept an Iran with nuclear weapons capability, if there were proof that it was nuclear weapons that Teheran was after. He said that if Israel had proof that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, it should provide it to Moscow.