Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with a group of senior American Jewish communal leaders in a hastily arranged Kremlin session Tuesday evening, promised to tighten Russian monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, but he rejected a request to cut off ties with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The two and a half hour meeting, which was initiated by the American Jewish participants, came hours after an Israeli Cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky, canceled a separate meeting with Putin because of political disputes in Jerusalem. Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, was said to be planning his own trip to Moscow to meet with Putin later this week.
The rush of Israeli and Jewish contacts with the Kremlin gave rise to intense speculation over the motives for the meeting. Several observers said that Israel was seeking to cultivate Putin as a counterweight to the increasing pressure on Israel from the Bush administration, while others suggested that it was part of a Russian campaign to improve ties with America following its opposition to the war in Iraq and criticism of its nuclear aid to Tehran.
Russia is the only member of the so-called Middle East Quartet — the others are the United States, European Union and United Nations — that that does not chair a monitoring committee within the framework of the so-called “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Israelis are said to be interested in increasing Putin’s role, viewing him as a potential ally partly because of his war against Islamic militants in Chechnya and partly because of his close ties to the Likud and right-wing Jewish groups in Russia.
Putin told his guests that he was just coming off a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, according to the Russian Interfax news agency. Putin had already met American Jewish leaders during a visit to Washington in November 2001 and when he was still head of the Russian secret services in early 1998.
Russia was also said by observers to be seeking American Jewish help in winning cancellation of its trade restrictions with the U.S. under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Putin, who received his guests in the Kremlin, said that Russia would withhold delivery of fuel for a nuclear facility built with Russian assistance in Iran until Tehran provides additional information about its intended use, several sources said.
However, he declined to accept the group’s position on sidelining Arafat. Putin told his guests that Moscow felt closer to the American position than to the European one regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But he added that Moscow continued to view Arafat as a legitimate leader. Still, one Jewish American communal leader said this stance was “under review.”
Jewish communal leaders emerging from the meeting were cautiously optimistic over its results. “It was an excellent meeting in which we pointed [out] our concerns and he very honestly explained Russia’s position,” Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress, told the Forward in a phone interview from Moscow.
The Bush administration and several European governments have been pressuring Putin to halt the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility until Tehran agrees to further inspections by the U.N. nuclear agency.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said recently that Putin had accepted the demand, but Russian officials promptly contradicted him.
According to Rosen and others, Putin said Russia would suspend the delivery of fuel until Russia obtains further information about the use of the spent fuel from the facility. However, he did not say explicitly that Russia would wait for further inspections. Still, Putin said he felt Washington was exaggerating Iran’s threat and that he saw Pakistan as a greater danger since it already has nuclear weapons and harbors Al Qaeda sympathizers.
Besides Rosen, the other participants in the Moscow meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; the Presidents Conference’s outgoing chair Mortimer Zuckerman; his predecessor Ronald Lauder; incoming conference chair James Tisch; Anti-Defamation League national chair Glenn Tobias; American Jewish Committee president Harold Tanner and Robert Meth, the president of Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, The Baltic States and Eurasia. Also present were Rabbi Berel Lazar, the head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, and the federation’s executive director, Alexander Boroda, a Lazar spokesman said.
Sharansky, Israel’s minister for world Jewish affairs, was in Moscow at the same time as the American group. He had been scheduled to meet separately with Putin earlier in the day. However, Sharansky’s visit prompted furious protests from Shalom, the foreign minister, who complained that Sharansky was encroaching on his turf. Sharansky, a one-time Soviet political prisoner, was partly in charge of relations with Moscow during Sharon’s first administration. It was not clear how closely his visit to Moscow was coordinated with Sharon.
The spokesman for Rabbi Lazar, Borukh Gorin, said the chief rabbi was the driving force behind the effort, which started two or three months ago. Rosen said he believed the idea of the meeting likely emerged from the recent summit between Bush and Putin in St. Petersburg. A source at an American Jewish organization said Putin was seeking ways to improve Russia’s image in America following the Iraq war, and that Israeli and American Jewish leaders were eager to talk to Putin about Iran, the road map and antisemitism.
Several sources said the meeting had been arranged on extremely short notice. Tanner, the AJCommittee president, was said to have left abruptly for Moscow from Israel, where he was participating in an AJCommittee leadership mission. For hours several AJCommittee staffers were unable to explain the nature of his departure. Gorin said that the meeting, originally scheduled to last one hour, lasted about two and a half hours. An American Jewish communal leader said that when aides mentioned that the president needed to end the meeting, he brushed them aside.
At the meeting, Putin’s guests reiterated their past support for the Russian demand that Moscow be “graduated” or permanently exempted from the terms of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment. The amendment conditioned U.S. trade links to communist countries on an annual appraisal of those countries’ emigration and human rights policies. The examination was imposed to protest the fate of Soviet Jewry and has been routinely waived in Russia’s case since the end of the Cold War.
However, Congress still has not granted Russia the permanent exemption despite a promise made by President Bush to Putin last year. The main opponent to Russia’s “graduation” is the American poultry industry, which opposes a decision by Russia to stop $1 billion worth of poultry imports from the U.S.
A Jewish organizational source said Putin was annoyed that Bush had not fulfilled his promise and expressed hope that Congress would act in the fall.
The Russian president also expressed his determination to fight antisemitism in Russia.
The two sides also discussed the situation in Chechnya. Putin said he was disappointed by the European criticism of what he sees as a campaign against terrorists and his critics say is a heavy-handed repression of an independence movement. He said he was hoping to obtain more support from the Bush administration on this issue.