Significant Israeli-Russian differences over Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah emerged during talks Wednesday between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Lavrov arrived Tuesday for two days of talks in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. After meeting Shalom he traveled to Ramallah for talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday.
The differences of opinion regarding Iran became apparent at a joint Shalom-Lavrov press conference in Jerusalem.
While Shalom said Israel believed Iran would become a "clear and present" nuclear danger in some six months, Lavrov said Russia had not received information from either the International Atomic Energy Commission or any intelligence services supporting this position. He called on Israel to present Russia with these facts if it had them.
"As I told Silvan Shalom, if our Israeli friends have this information, if they have these facts, we would be the first interested to find out about it," Lavrov said. "We are taking this very seriously and would be the last one to be lenient about violations of the nonproliferation regime."
One diplomatic official in Jerusalem said the Israeli-Russian discrepancies over Iran's threat had to do with the question of when Iran would be considered a clear and present danger. While Israel believed this point would be reached when Iran obtained all the know-how needed to develop a nuclear bomb, Russia believed that Teheran would only be a clear and present danger when it was well on the way to building the bomb, the official said.
While Israel and the US are interested in seeing the Iranian question taken to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions as soon as possible, Lavrov made it clear that Moscow was in no great hurry.
"We rely on the professional assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency," he said. "The agency is working there, the agency has a mandate to verify all questions which emerged during past activities around Iran that were not reported, and the agency has the mandate to find out whether there are signs of a secret, military nuclear program. This is being reported by the agency to the governing board.
"The agency is making progress; it closed some of the issues of the past and continues to work on the remaining questions. We can only rely on the professional assessments of the agency. We have to wait for the next report of the IAEA," Lavrov said.
The differences on Hamas and Hizbullah did not come out in the open at the press conference, but were present during the meeting.
According to diplomatic officials, when Shalom said the international community must keep Hamas from gaining legitimacy, Lavrov compared Hamas with Hizbullah, which Russia believes has a legitimate political wing.
When Lavrov said Russia's ambassador to Lebanon met with a Hizbullah leader in the summer, Shalom asked how Russia would feel if Israel's ambassador to Russia would meet with a representative of Chechnyan terrorists. Lavrov did not reply.
Russia, according to Israeli officials, believes that organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah can eventually be brought "into the fold" and convinced to give up their terrorists ways.
Lavrov, during his meeting with Shalom, pointed to the IRA in Northern Ireland as an example of how a terrorist organization could transform itself. The difference, Shalom rebutted, was that the IRA never sought the destruction of England.
Another area of disagreement between Russia and Israel had to do with the UN report on Syrian involvement in the February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Shalom, at the press conference, said Israel believes "strong action must be taken by international community to ensure that Syria's interference in Lebanon and support of terror against Israel is brought to an end. Russia's position on this will be crucial."
Although Israel has taken a low profile on this matter, it is believed to be in favor of sanctions against Syria if it did not cooperate fully with the UN investigation.
However, Mikhail Kamynin, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman accompanying Lavrov, was quoted by Inter-Fax as saying that "a resolution of the Security Council on the investigation of the murder of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri should be just. It should confirm the impartial character of the investigation done. Russia opposes sanctions against Syria. We shall do our best for preventing attempts to impose sanctions on Syria."
On another matter of concern to Israel, Russian arms sales to Syria, Lavrov told Shalom that Russia would not sell Syria weapons that would upset the current strategic balance in the region.
Prior to his meeting with Shalom, Lavrov met with President Moshe Katsav and focused on the Palestinians.
He reiterated Russian President Vladimir Putin's admiration for Sharon's single-mindedness with regard to Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip, and said Russia was investing significant efforts through the Quartet and via its bilateral relations in keeping the peace process on track.
However, Lavrov said he feared the momentum generated by the disengagement plan would dissipate and the opportunity that it seemed to promise would be lost.
Under the circumstances it was difficult to remain optimistic, Katsav said. If Abbas was unable to meet the conditions for peace, the whole process could drag on for another decade, he added.
Katsav and Lavrov also discussed matters relating to Iran and Syria and anti-Semitism in Russia. Lavrov said Putin was determined to eradicate all manifestations of anti-Semitism in Russia, and had demanded that the full force of the law be implemented in this regard.