Russian-made, state of the art weapons Israel says Hizbullah used during the recent war in Lebanon will be one of the main topics of discussion during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's two-day visit that begins on Thursday. Israel, according to diplomatic officials, wants Russia to stop supplying arms to Syria and Iran, because some of these weapons ended up in Hizbullah's hands. Russia has claimed that the arms with Russian markings Israel found in south Lebanon were either of old Soviet issue, or came through other channels, not necessarily through Syria or Iran.
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Lavrov is scheduled to meet Thursday evening with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and on Friday with Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni. He is also scheduled to go to Ramallah on Friday for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Lavrov will be the first of a number of foreign statesmen arriving over the next three days for talks. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema is also arriving for two days of talks on Thursday, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Polish President Lech Kaczynski are scheduled to arrive over the weekend.
The arms issue has caused some tension in the Israeli-Russian relationship, with some diplomatic officials saying this was behind a Russian decision to cancel an Israeli-Russian trade exhibition this week in Tel Aviv. The Russians say the fair was cancelled because not as many firms as expected signed up to feature their wares.
Soon after the war, an Israeli delegation headed by Mark Sofer, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for Euro Asia, went to Moscow to discuss the arms issue. The delegation complained that Iran and Syria passed Russian-made Fagot and Kornet anti-tank missiles onto Hizbullah. These missiles were responsible for killing many of the 118 IDF soldiers who died in the war.
Although Israeli officials left Moscow satisfied that "their message was heard," a few days later Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the Israeli claims were baseless.
Ivanov said Israel had provided no evidence of Hizbullah having the Russian-designed missiles, and Russian officials said Moscow maintained strict controls over its weapons sales to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.
However, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said in an interview broadcast Wednesday in Russia that Hizbullah had indeed used Russian-made weapons. He told Ekho Moskvy radio that Israeli authorities were aware that Russia had asked Syria to explain how the weapons had gotten into the hands of Hizbullah.
"We saw these weapons. They had certain markings," Peres said. "As far as we know, the Russians demanded explanations from Syria."
In addition to discussing the weapons issue, the talks in Israel with Lavrov are also expected to center around implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, and the possible role Russia could play in implementation on the ground.
While Russia has not committed any troops to the international force in Lebanon, there was some talk in Moscow of sending army engineers to help rebuild the country's damaged infrastructure.
"Who knows," one Israeli official said, "they may come with other ideas as well." The official said that Lavrov's visit now must be seen within the context of the visits over the last two weeks of numerous foreign ministers.
"They want to be relevant," the official said, "and not leave all the work to the Americans, Germans and French." The Russian claim to relevance stems from the fact that unlike the US, it has an open channel of communications with both Teheran and Damascus.
Another issue that will be discussed is Iran, and the question of imposing sanction on Teheran now that it has decided to go ahead with the uranium enrichment. Lavrov suggested on Wednesday during a visit to Cape Town, where he was accompanying President Vladimir Putin on a state visit, that the Kremlin was contemplating the possibility of sanctions but remained opposed to harsh and quick punishment.
Russia, along with China, has steadfastly opposed efforts by the United States and other Western nations to bring sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.
Lavrov said the UN Security Council's recent resolution on the issue holds out the possibility of further measures on Iran such as economic penalties, banning air travel or breaking diplomatic relations, but not the use of armed force.
"This article envisages measures to exert influence on a country that is not cooperating, including economic ones, but it is written unambiguously there that this excludes any kind of forceful measures of influence," ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.
Another issue that will be discussed in Israel, according to Israeli officials, is a planned visit by Olmert to Russia in mid-October. This would be Olmert's first trip to Russia since he became prime minister, and his first trip abroad since June.
AP contributed to this report.