(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear on his way to Moscow Tuesday that he was not going to push Russian President Vladimir Putin to back UN sanctions against Teheran, a clear indication that Israel wanted to steer clear of a public confrontation over the Iranian nuclear issue.
Asked on the plane whether he would press Putin on the sanctions issue, Olmert said that he was not going to go into such details, but rather deal with the principle of the need to keep Iran from going nuclear.
"I think that Russia understands that this is an existential threat for Israel, and am convinced that they don't want to see a nuclear Iran," Olmert said.
Olmert calls Iran 'existential threat'
Diplomatic officials in Moscow said Israel and Russia had been talking about the issue for years and that each side was well acquainted with the others' position. The officials said the Kremlin was skeptical of Israeli assessments that the Iranians would master the nuclear technology cycle within a number of months, because Israel has issued such warnings a number of times in the past.
While the officials said that Russia definitely did not want a nuclear Iran on its border, they said it felt that Teheran was a long way away from reaching nuclear capability.
The officials added that there were those in the Russian leadership who believed talk of sanctions was just an American ploy to cut Russia out of huge contracts in Iran in order to eventually get them for US firms. The officials said that in evaluating Russia's position on Iran it was necessary to understand that they viewed it through the prism of what many in Moscow view as suspect American aims.
Although Russia appreciates Israel's concerns about Iran, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a private meeting recently was said to have dubbed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "unstable," it views Israel as in America's pocket and doing Washington's bidding regarding Iran, the officials said.
Russia, according to these officials, is concerned that sanctions on Iran would jeopardize its billion-dollar project to build a nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr. Not only is Russia building that reactor, which Israel now seems satisfied is not being used for military purposes, but - as an even greater pot sweetener - it is also selling the Iranians the anti-aircraft missiles with which to protect the installation.
The officials said that, while Russia was opposed to a nuclear Iran, it would never join military actions against it because of the fear that this would incite unrest among its own not-insignificant Muslim population. Also, the officials said, Moscow was also opposed to any military action by the US or Israel because of a fear that this would ignite the region.
Just before flying to Russia, Olmert met in Jerusalem Tuesday morning with Mossad head Meir Dagan, but it was not clear whether Olmert was bringing any updated intelligence information on the Iranian nuclear program to Moscow.
Olmert, who arrived in Moscow on Tuesday evening, is to begin his visit - the first by an Israeli prime minister in three years - with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He will then meet Putin, 15 years to the day that Israel and Russia renewed diplomatic ties.
Olmert is also to be the first Israeli prime minister to meet with a Russian defense minister at his ministry, long viewed as Moscow's inner sanctum. The issue of Russian arms sold to Syria and Iran that then find their way to the hands of Hizbullah or even Hamas is likely to be raised at this meeting, although this is an issue that has been dealt with extensively over the last month.
Olmert said on the plane that Putin, during his visit to Israel in April of 2005, told him that he would not do anything that would damage Israel's security, but that Russia had an obligation to provide defensive weapons to Syria.
"Russia's position is not aggressive toward us," Olmert said. He added that Putin dispatched a delegation to Damascus to talk to Syrian President Bashar Assad and have him send a message to Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to ensure that abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit is not harmed. He said that Putin had demonstrated a great deal of involvement in the Shalit issue.
Olmert will take part in a ceremony at Moscow's central synagogue on Arhipova Street Wednesday evening, marking 100 years since its establishment. That event will also be attended by Arkadi Gaydamak, who contributed some $1.5 million to the synagogue.
By agreeing to attend, Olmert waded into the tricky field of Moscow Jewish politics, where there is a huge feud going on between two factions, one headed by Rabbi Adolph Shayevich and the other by Chabad Rabbi Berl Lazar. To balance things out, Olmert will attend an event the following day at a Chabad-affiliated center that will be attended by Russian-Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev.
Officials involved in preparing for the trip said that although it wasn't planned with an eye to bringing Olmert any immediate dividends among the huge Russian voting bloc in Israel, if he were seen standing up to Putin it would have a positive effect.
Olmert is accompanied by two Russian-speaking Kadima MKs, Marina Solodkin and Zeev Elkin. Jewish Agency head Zeev Bielski also joined the trip.
Olmert is scheduled to hold a meeting on Thursday with parents of soldiers currently serving in the IDF, and another one with the parents of fallen soldiers.