28 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met in Jerusalem today for talks on Russia's role in the Middle East -- including a proposal by Putin to hold a peace conference in Moscow later this year.
The peace-conference idea has received a lukewarm response from both the United States and Israel.
Meanwhile, Putin has been defending his support for plans to sell Russian antiaircraft missiles to Syria and continue to assist Iran's nuclear program.
Russia's support for Syria and Iran is threatening to cast a shadow over Putin's historic visit to Israel -- the first ever by an acting Russian head of state.
Before going into talks with Sharon today, Putin sought to play down Russia's plans to sell weapons to Syria, with which Israel is officially at war.
He also suggested that Russia is hardening his line toward Iran's nuclear program, saying Tehran needs to do more to assure the world it is not trying to build atomic weapons.
Speaking to journalists after meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav earlier today, Putin said he had vetoed the sale of longer-range missiles to Syria. And he added that the only way the Russian antiaircraft missiles would pose a threat to Israeli forces would be if Israel attacked Syria.
"No one can say that we are acting irresponsibly," Putin said. "On the contrary, we are taking into account our partners' opinions and concerns. And we are not doing anything to upset the balance of forces and interests in the region."
But Katsav said the missile system could reduce Israel's ability to fight terrorism.
"Russia has made important efforts in the international fight against terror," Katsav said. "The two nations have a mutual and joint interest. For Israel, it is important to advance relations with Russia in regards to coordinating various issues."
Katsav also said Israel is concerned that the deal could allow deadly weapons to fall into the hands of Lebanon's pro-Syrian, Shi'ite militia Hezbollah.
But Putin dismissed that possibility. "We mounted those systems on mobile carriages and they cannot be passed on to terrorists unnoticed," Putin said. "Besides, they are built so that if they cannot be used if they are removed from the carriages."
Putin also rejected Israeli criticisms about Russian technical support for Iran's nuclear program. He insisted that Russian help was only for peaceful purposes, such as energy and not nuclear weapons.
But speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem today, Putin used stronger-than-usual language on Iran. He said Tehran's agreement to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia "does not seem to be enough."
He also said Iranians should "abandon all technology to create a full nuclear cycle and also not obstruct their nuclear sites from international control."
Putin's meeting with Sharon came during a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories amid a wider tour of the region.
Reports suggested the two leaders were also discussing a proposal by Putin for a Middle East peace conference to be held in Moscow later this year.
Putin made the proposal in Cairo yesterday just before traveling to Israel.
"We could propose convening an international conference in Moscow this fall with the participation of all concerned parties, including the four mediators [in the Middle East peace process," Putin said. "Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations]."
But Putin's proposal met with a lukewarm response from both Israel and the United States.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClennan said yesterday that such a summit would have to wait until what he called "an appropriate time."
"In terms of an international conference, we have to look at where we are right now," McClellan said. "The 'road map' does call for an international conference. We believe there will be an appropriate time for an international conference. But we are not at that stage now. And I don't expect that we will be there by the fall."
U.S. officials have expressed hope that an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, scheduled for the summer, will help rekindle the stalled Mideast peace process.
Putin is due to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah tomorrow.
The Palestinian envoy to Moscow, Khairi al-Aridi, said earlier this week that Putin was expected to make an offer on supplying armored troops carriers to the Palestinian Authority -- a move that Israel also opposes.
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