Published April 27, 2005
| Associated Press
JERUSALEM – Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) made a historic first visit to Israel by a Kremlin leader Wednesday, hours after calling for a Mideast peace (search) conference in Moscow this fall.
Putin arrived from Cairo, Egypt, where he proposed a Middle East peace conference in Moscow in the fall. The topics of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders are expected to include proposed Russian missile sales to Syria and an expanded role for Russia in Mideast diplomacy.
Putin was greeted at Ben Gurion International Airport (search) outside Tel Aviv by Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert. Putin did not make a statement to the press.
In Cairo, Putin, whose government is a sponsor of the "road map" plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, said he would discuss the conference proposal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his three-day visit to Israel.
"I am suggesting that we should convene a conference for all these countries concerned (with the peace process) and the Quartet (search) next autumn," Putin said during a joint news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Quartet includes Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. The peace plan introduced by the four was long stalled but has been revived by Israel and the Palestinians since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel did not object to an international conference held under the terms of the peace plan, but he said much needed to be done first.
"Israel has accepted the 'road map,' and in the second stage of the 'road map' it specifically mentions a conference," Regev said. "So we don't have a problem with a conference ... but obviously we have not reached the second stage of the 'road map' yet."
The Palestinians, like the Egyptians, have been pushing for an international conference sooner rather than later, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Putin's offer.
Erekat noted the proposed conference would come after completion of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer and said it could help the push for a final peace deal. Palestinians worry Israeli efforts toward peace will end with the Gaza pullout.
"We need to specify the next steps, and an international conference would serve the purpose of resuming permanent status negotiations between the two parties," Erekat said.
Putin said foreign ministers of the Quartet will meet in Moscow on May 8 to discuss the peace process. He said high-level experts would attend the autumn conference, but the exact level of representation still had to be agreed upon, saying he still needed to speak with Sharon.
Putin said Russia believed it was necessary "to activate the role of international mediators" in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Mubarak, whose government is cooperating with Israel on the Gaza pullout to ensure stability, criticized Sharon for not implementing commitments on prisoner releases and withdrawals from West Bank towns that he made at a February meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh.
"I worry that the commitments won't be implemented," he said.
Mubarak and Putin also discussed Iraq, where violence has been on the rise in recent weeks. Putin indicated Russia wants to see a timetable soon for the departure of U.S.-led coalition forces.
"There must be an agreement on the basis of a new constitution, and there must be an agreement on the timing and conditions for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq," the Russian leader said.
Mubarak told reporters "the United Nations should play a role in helping Iraq and in particular in rebuilding its constitutional and legislative institutions."
"It should also play a role in the reconstruction of Iraq," Mubarak said.
Putin's stop in Cairo was the first state visit to Egypt by a Russian or Soviet leader since Nikita Khrushchev came in 1964 to inaugurate construction of the Aswan High Dam, which the Soviet Union helped finance.
Egypt's close ties with Moscow began waning after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970. Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, set the regional powerhouse on a pro-American track that accelerated under Mubarak.
Putin's trip to Israel is the first by a Kremlin leader to the Jewish state and is part of his effort to burnish an image as a world leader amid accusations of backsliding on democracy at home.
It comes as increasingly close ties between the two countries are threatened by Russia's determination to push ahead with a missile sale to Syria that Israel considers threatening. Other potential sore points are Moscow's nuclear aid to Iran, signs of rising anti-Semitism in Russia and the Kremlin's push to extradite several former Russian billionaires who have taken residence in Israel.