Continuing his agenda of personal diplomacy in key areas of the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin began a two-day visit to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan yesterday. Billed as a "working visit," the trip features major cultural ceremonies in each location, while Putin is also obviously discussing the very hot strategic issues in the region.
In Israel Monday, Putin took part in the dedication of a monument to the Red Army's victory over the Nazi forces in World War II. It has been built in the city of Netanya at the initiative of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Putin held separate talks with Netanyahu and with Israeli President Shimon Peres. He is accompanied by Foreign Minister Lavrov in a total Russian delegation estimated at 3-400, which arrived in four planes.
In remarks after meeting with Netanyahu, Putin focussed on the development of bilateral Israeli-Russian economic relations. He noted that over 1 million former citizens of the Soviet Union and Russia now live in Israel, "and we want to see them live in peace and security." Putin continued, "I remind you that, right from the start of the Arab Spring, Russia consistently told its partners that democratic transformation must take place in civilised fashion and without outside interference. The events in the Middle East only make it more urgent than ever to resolve the region's long-running conflicts, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. We call on all sides to resume negotiations. This is the only way towards reaching a settlement."
His terse account of the remainder of his discussion with Netanyahu was: "Of course, we also spoke in detail about the situation in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program."
Putin effusively thanked the Israelis both for restoring Russian access to the Sergiyev Pilgrims' Guesthouse in Jerusalem and for building the Red Army memorial. He said, "We value Israel's objective attitude towards the events of World War II. People here do not dispute the decisive role the Soviet Union played in defeating Nazism. The people that lived through the Holocaust cannot forget their executioners, or their liberators."
In his speech at the unveiling of the monument, which was designed by Russian scuptors, Putin said, "Everything I just seen and heard here makes a strong emotional impact on me and strengthens my deep respect for the Jewish people, for Israel's people, and my sense of gratitude for everything you are doing to immortalise the memory of those who died in World War II. We are here to unveil a monument that I think will become one of the most symbolic in the country. I have seen various monuments in Israel, all of them works of talent that make a truly deep impression. But this monument commemorates the immortal heroism and strength of spirit of the entire wartime generation, their countless sacrifices and irreplaceable losses, and the victory in 1945 that has given the whole of humanity an undying legacy. ...
"We greatly appreciate that our sincere feelings are shared here in Israel, where millions of people in their hearts, just like in Russia, keep a special place for dates such as September 1, 1939, June 22, 1941, and May 9, 1945. As we unveil this monument today, we grieve together for those who fell on the battlefields, died from wounds and hunger, or suffered the death camps' tortures. ... This monument appeals to our memory, but also reminds us of just how fragile peace is. We must do everything we possibly can to ensure that the criminal Nazi doctrines never rise again under any form or guise, and that the Nuremberg Tribunal's verdicts remain unquestioned."
After their talks, President Peres asked President Putin to comment on the situation around Iran. Putin said, "Look at what happened to the Americans in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I told Obama the same thing. ... There is no need to do things too quickly; one should not act without thinking first. Iraq has a pro-Iranian regime after everything that has happened there. These things should be thought out ahead of time before doing something one will regret later. One should not act prematurely."
Today Putin visits the West Bank, where he will inaugurate the Russian Cultural Center in Bethlehem and meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, before travelling on to Jordan at the invitation of King Abdullah.