Israel believes Lavrov has message from Assad

Assessments in Jerusalem based on Russia's interest in having mediator's role in the Middle East.

Lavrov 224.88 AP (photo credit: AP)
Lavrov 224.88 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov may carry some kind of message from Syrian President Bashar Assad when he arrives here Thursday for a brief meeting, according to assessments in Jerusalem. These assessments are based on Russia's keen interest in carving out a mediator's role in the Middle East that will enable it to rival US's diplomatic supremacy here, as well as Syria's interest in finding favor with the Russians. Lavrov's trip comes as Syria has once again been putting out feelers regarding a possible peace deal with Israel, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly acting as a middle-man in the process. The Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar reported over the weekend that Turkey is facilitating contact between Israel and Syria. The paper said that Syria wanted "serious signs" from Israel that it would withdraw its forces "from all occupied Arab territories" before negotiations could begin. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the murmurings of some movement on the Syrian diplomatic front last week during a press conference with visiting Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. "We are interested in peace with Syria," Olmert said. "The Syrians well know what they must do for this, as we know what we must do, and I hope that the Syrians will be able to do what is necessary so that it will be possible to hold genuine talks allowing us to advance towards peace." Olmert has said repeatedly that peace talks with Damascus would necessitate their ending support for Hizbullah, Hamas and Palestinian terrorism, distancing themselves from Iran, and kicking the terrorists' headquarters out of Damascus. Assad has made clear that Israel must agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Officials in Jerusalem said that Lavrov is likely to bring up the Kosovo issue as well during his talks here. In an interview with the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta before embarking on his trip, Lavrov urged Middle Eastern countries not to recognize Kosovo, which is predominantly Moslem. Shortly after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia last month - a move totally rejected by Moscow - Israel issue a statement saying it was "studying" the matter. Jerusalem has still not made any decision whether or not it will recognize Kosovo as an independent country. Regarding the Palestinians, Lavrov was also quoted in Rossiyskaya Gazeta saying "We are maintaining our relations with Hamas. Khaled Mashal has visited Moscow more than once. And we will continue these contacts." He told the paper that the purpose of Russia's contacts with Hamas was to bring about unity between Hamas and Fatah, and getting Hamas to accept Israel's right to exist, disavow terrorism, and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. He said this will also come up in his discussions with the Syrian leadership. Lavrov is also expected to discuss Moscow's interest in holding an international conference on the Middle East as a follow up to the Annapolis conference. This idea was broached even before last November's conference in Maryland, but was greeted coolly both by Israel and the US and has failed to get off the ground. The Russians, however, have not lost interest in the idea and - according to Israeli officials - are still raising it, with Lavrov sure to bring it up during his discussion with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Israel is expected to listen, but remain non-committal. This is the first visit by a ranking Russian official since Dmitry Medvedev won the Russian elections last month. It is not yet clear whether Medvedev will keep Lavrov in office once he formally becomes the Russian president in May. The ceremonial highlight of Lavrov's one day visit here will be the signing of an agreement - in the works for a year - to do away with visa requirements for visitors from both countries. Up until now, both Russians traveling to Israel and Israelis going to Russia needed visas, a process that was both expensive and often lengthy. Russians interested in visiting Israel either had to travel to the embassy in Moscow to get the visa, or have their travel agents do it - a procedure that could take between a week to four months, and which substantially increased the price of a ticket. Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Lieberman was instrumental in pushing the change through the government, over objections that the lack of visa requirements from Russia would make it easier for Russian criminal elements to come into the country. The counter argument - and one that prevailed -was that this move would significantly increase Russian tourism to Israel. and that there were other, more effective ways, to keep problematic visitors out of the country. Russia, according to diplomatic officials, has been keen on securing an agreement on this matter with Israel, as a first step in coming to such agreements with a number of other nations.