Lieberman heads to Russia, Belarus for 5 days

Foreign minister to meet Medvedev, Putin, Lavrov and others; also plans to visit Belarus later this week.

FM Lieberman in Knesset 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
FM Lieberman in Knesset 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has brought a greater Russian orientation to the Foreign Ministry because of his background and constituency, will leave Monday for a five-day trip to Russia and Belarus. In what is being interpreted as a positive signal in Jerusalem, Lieberman will be meeting both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. By contrast, diplomatic observers in Jerusalem noted that it was likely Lieberman would get a much lower-profile reception in Washington, where he is widely viewed as an ultra-nationalist, when he flies there later this month. Unlike his scheduled meeting with the Russian president, a meeting with US President Barack Obama seems extremely unlikely. According to diplomatic officials, the talks in Moscow would concentrate on three major areas. The first would be the strategic area, with the talks expected to center on Iran, especially in light of Obama's policy of engagement with Teheran. The talks are expected to discuss the different assessments of Iran's nuclear progress, its ability to fire ballistic missiles, its incitement against Israel, and Russia's role in trying to halt the Iranian nuclear program. The second focus will be on the diplomatic process, with the Russians expected to want to hear from Lieberman about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's recent visit to Washington, as well as Israel's overall diplomatic plan. One of the issues to be discussed in this framework will be the long-proposed Moscow international peace conference, with Russia interested in sounding Israel out on the issue, which has been bouncing around since November 2007 and the Annapolis conference. The feeling in Jerusalem is that the Russians are currently waiting patiently on the side until Obama presents his Mideast plan, and then will search for a more active role. "They want the conference to be more than a photo opportunity, and as a result are waiting to hear what the Americans are proposing," one government source said. Obama is expected to visit Moscow in July, where the Middle East is expected to be one of a number of key items on the agenda. The third focus of Lieberman's visit will be upgrading the bilateral ties between the two countries. Foreign Ministry officials have said that given his Russian background, Lieberman is very keen on strengthening the economic and cultural ties between the two countries, and in this realm has distinguished himself from the last few foreign ministers, who looked at Russia only in terms of the wider diplomatic pictures: Iran and the Palestinians. Lieberman is expected to hold most of his meetings in Russian, and also has a number of media events planned, including two press conferences where he will also deal with the local press in their own language. On Thursday Lieberman is scheduled to fly to Minsk, and a meeting with authoritarian leader President Alexander Lukashenko, who in October 2007 made what were widely viewed as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments. Addressing the "miserable state of the city of Babruysk" on a live broadcast on state radio he stated: "This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Babruysk into a pigsty. Look at Israel - I was there and saw it myself ... I call on Jews who have money to come back to Babruysk." Lukashenko later sent a special envoy to Jerusalem to apologize for the remarks. Lukashenko, who has been courted by the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, has been kept at arm's length by the US. The US was appraised in advance of Lieberman's trip to the country. According to Israeli officials, Lieberman will focus in his meetings with Lukashenko on the Iranian issue, and argue that Minsk's ties to Iran do not serve its own interests. Lieberman visited Minsk in a private capacity shortly after the February elections, when he also went to his native Republic of Moldova. In both Moscow and Minsk, Lieberman is scheduled to meet with the heads of the Jewish communities. He is scheduled to return to Israel on Friday.