Putin Leaves Israel, Will Transfer Weapons to Syria and PA

Despite a positive atmosphere during the Russian President's historic visit to Israel, Russia plans to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and give 50 armored vehicles and 2 helicopters to the PA.

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, | updated: 15:53

In press conferences he held with Prime Minister Sharon and President Katzav, Russian President Vladimir Putin explained that his country "would never do anything to harm Israel." He even said that he canceled a planned sale to Syria of missiles with a 300-kilometer range when he realized that these could hit Israel.

The missiles that Russia will sell Syria have only a five-kilometer range, are truck-mounted, and will be monitored by Russian inspectors, Putin explained. "You're not planning to fly over Syria, are you?" Putin asked Israeli reporters who questioned him.

In fact, Israel has carried out some missions in Syrian territory. In late 2003, only several hours after the deadly Maxim Restaurant terror attack in Haifa that killed 15 people, the Israel Air Force bombed a Syrian army training camp 15 kilometers northwest of Damascus. The targeted Iranian-supported camp provided advanced training to terrorists and taught them to establish terrorist infrastructures in PA areas. More recently, Israeli planes buzzed the Syrian Presidential palace in Damascus in response to another attack.

Prime Minister Sharon expressed his concern that the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists. The U.S. State Department also opposes the sale to Syria, on the grounds that Syria is a terrorist state.

Putin said he appreciated Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear build-up. "A nuclear Iran scares us no less than it does you," he said. "We are checking whether Iran's steps will enable it to reach a nuclear bomb... I told the Iranians that we object to their statements about the destruction of Israel." He said that if Israel was concerned about the "leakage" of weapons in the Middle East, "why don't you worry about the $6.8 billion worth of weapons that the U.S. sells in the region?"

Putin also rejected Israel objection's to his proposed gift of 50 armored vehicles and two helicopters to the PA. He similarly rebuffed Israel's negativity towards his proposal for a Middle East summit later this year in Moscow. Sharon said that an international conference would not be convened before the second stage of the Road Map, i.e., only once the PA fulfills its security obligations.

The Russian President expressed his warm feelings toward Israel, and noted that 20% of Israel's population is Russia-born.

Some analysts noted that Sharon succeeded in the "declarations" aspect of the visit, but not in the "actions" part, as Putin did not change his mind regarding Russia's relationship with Iran, Syria or the Palestinian Authority.

One security source told HaTzofeh that if Sharon's great accomplishment was in Putin's promise to establish a joint mechanism with Israel by which to exchange information in the war against global terrorism, "this is not much of an achievement. We already exchange information whenever necessary, and having another mechanism will merely complicate matters."

Putin conferred with PA chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) on Friday and placed flowers on Yasser Arafat’s grave. Israeli officials were annoyed that the Russian leader visited Arafat's grave the day after he and Sharon said that their two countries would coordinate efforts to fight terror.

"We will give the PA technical help by sending equipment and training people," Putin said at a joint press conference with Abu Mazen. "We will give the PA helicopters and also communication equipment."

Lt.-General William Ward, the U.S. security envoy to the Middle East, recently related to Israel the PA's request for weapons, to which Israeli officials replied, "Let them first take the weapons from the terrorists."

Israel made it clear to Putin and the Americans that it would not allow the PA to receive armored vehicles and helicopters. PA negotiator Saeb Erakat said Friday, however, "I think I can say the choppers are a done deal."