JERUSALEM — The white, blue and red flags flying in the streets of Jerusalem this week signaled a historic visit: the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first head of state from Moscow to visit since the establishment of the State of Israel.
The improvement in the political atmosphere since the death of Yasser Arafat has brought us a flow of high-ranking visitors in the last two months, but Putin’s is not just another visit. This is an unusual event not only because it is happening for the first time, but also because of Russia’s unique place in the world and Israel’s ties with this power.
The term “power” is not used lightly. Russia is indeed a power, not only because it perceives itself as such, but also because that is how we perceive it and its varied interests in the world and in the Middle East in particular. As a result of those interests and other factors — including some with historical roots — Russia enjoys a variety of relationships with the Arab-Muslim world around us.
Those relationships are of enormous importance to Israel, because through them Russia can contribute to regional stability. It is already involved in the international effort in this matter, through the Quartet. Its partnership in that political framework, together with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, is testimony to Russia’s ranking status.
The dialogue between Israel and Russia is varied and deep in unusual ways. It is a fertile and intensive dialogue, conducted on a permanent basis at all levels. It is characterized by frankness and openness, so that even when we do not see eye to eye on matters, the issues are not swept under the carpet: Israel has not hidden its critical view of the missile sale to Syria. And on the issue of terrorism, both countries suffer from it and struggle with the problem of how to combat it within a democratic framework.
Russia issued a vehement condemnation after the terror attack at the Tel Aviv nightclub in February, but there are still differences of attitude between us over what is permissible and what is not. The impression given sometimes is that Russia does not think the way it deals with terror and the way Israel deals with terror are the same.
On the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, which is no doubt the number one strategic challenge currently facing Israel, Russia is demonstrating greater attentiveness and understanding to Israeli sensitivities than it did in the past. But on this matter, too, there is still a gap between the sides, a gap that should be narrowed. The fact that Israel approaches discussions with Russia without any profit motives or economic interests, as opposed to some other Western countries, increases the chances that Israel’s arguments will be greeted attentively.
The rich bilateral relations between the two countries go beyond regional matters, and include economic and cultural elements. The fact that more than a million ex-Russians and others from the former Soviet Union live in Israel has a large influence on strengthening the relationship, and deepening the closeness between the two countries and two nations in ways not frequently seen in the international community.
Among other things, this is expressed in cultural ties: The best of Russia’s performing artists visit Israel regularly and find a large and sympathetic audience here. There is also a significant flow in the other direction, such as the tours made to Russia by the Habimah and Gesher theatrical companies.
On the economic plane, the developments have been practically unprecedented: Trade between the two countries has quadrupled, to $1.2 billion in 2004 from $370 million in 1997— not including oil.
The familiarity with Israeli sensitivities and the demonstrated willingness to fight worrisome antisemitism in Russia were apparently behind Putin’s decision to bring a bronze statue with the Holocaust as its theme as a gift to Israel. His declaration at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, expressing shame over the antisemitism in his country, deserves respect. However, it is clear that the fight against antisemitism is a long process that must integrate legal and educational measures.
The Israel-Russia agenda is therefore full. Putin’s visit represents a new peak in the joint dialogue between the two countries, and an opportunity to continue nurturing that dialogue for the benefit of both sides. The Russian president will be welcomed here with open arms and an open heart, as between friends.
The writer is director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.