Netanyahu set to visit Moscow

No date yet set for Prime Minister Olmert to visit Russia.

While no final date has yet been set for a proposed visit by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Moscow in early September, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to go there on September 11 to meet with top Russian officials. Sources close to Netanyahu said that the trip to Moscow was planned some three months ago, and was not connected to the crisis in Georgia or the tension it has caused in Moscow's relations with the West and, to a certain extent, with Israel. One source did not deny that the trip had a domestic political angle as well, and could help Netanyahu with the Russian immigrant vote in Israel. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other top Russian officials for talks expected to focus on Iran and Syria. While Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's office has in principle agreed to meet Netanyahu, no date has yet been fixed for that meeting. No meeting has been set with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev because, for reasons of protocol, Medvedev wants to meet Olmert before he meets the head of the opposition. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said that discussions were still underway with the Kremlin about the possibility of an Olmert visit to Moscow in early September that would come in the wake of the Georgian crisis and concern in Jerusalem about the possibility of Russian arms sales to Damascus. If that happens, then Netanyahu, according to sources in his office, may postpone his trip so that it does not overlap with an Olmert visit. Israeli diplomatic officials, meanwhile, said they have had no indication that Russia had changed its long-standing position on arms sales to Syria, which is that Moscow would not make any sales that were against international law, and that it would not introduce weapons in the region that would alter the current strategic balance of power. Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Moscow last week and reportedly presented the Kremlin with an arms wish-list that included long-range anti-aircraft missiles that would hinder Israel's air maneuverability over Lebanon and Syria, and MIG-31 fighter jets. The officials also said that Netanyahu's visit, the possibility of a visit by Olmert, as well as plans to implement in mid-September an agreement with Russia that would do away with visa requirements for Russians visiting Israel, or Israelis visiting Russia, were all indications and signals that the Moscow-Jerusalem relationship has not been significantly damaged by the recent events in the Caucuses.