(AP) JERUSALEM – Israel has sent intelligence officers to Russia and is hosting at least two senior Russian officers in Tel Aviv — quietly moving to upgrade anti-terror cooperation with Moscow in the wake of a series of devastating attacks in Russia, officials told The Associated Press.
The Israeli moves come as President Vladimir Putin revamps Russia’s anti-terrorism capabilities after a school seizure by separatists in southern Russia ended with the deaths of at least 330 hostages, including many children.
A team of Israeli intelligence officers arrived discreetly in Russia shortly after the hostage standoff to discuss a program to share Israeli expertise, said three officials close to the mission.
Because of the political sensitivities surrounding the contacts, the officials asked that their names and nationalities not be revealed.
The officials said Russia was particularly interested in learning more about airport and air-traffic security in light of the Aug. 24 bombing of two Russian passenger jets.
The officials said the main purpose of the trip was to explain to Russia how Israel can help. The Israeli team has returned to Israel and is awaiting word on whether Russia will accept the offer of greater cooperation, the officials said.
At the same time, at least two senior Russian officers have arrived in Israel to examine a police anti-terrorism facility, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Details about the contacts remained sketchy. Both Israel and Russia have been loath to divulge much information about their cooperation.
Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service and the Israeli Foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny the Israeli assistance.
Israel’s vice premier, Ehud Olmert, told the AP that there are continuous, ongoing contacts between Israeli and Russian security services.
“I think there is a growing realization in Russia that they have to become more prepared for future terror attacks and that it’s a good idea to compare notes with us,” he said.
Israeli counter-terror techniques are among the world’s most sophisticated, and its public, no-strings-attached offer of assistance could provide a wealth of information.
But the cooperation poses problems for a Kremlin seeking to avoid alienating the Muslim world, where Russia has had long-standing political and economic ties. This is especially true of Iran, where Russia is helping to develop a nuclear energy program and maintaining a diplomatic and economic foothold.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor, said it had no information about new Israeli-Russian intelligence cooperation.
Spokesmen at Russia’s Interior and Foreign Ministries and the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv also had no immediate comment.
Officials in Israel pointed out that some of the recent contacts between Israelis and Russians had been planned before the latest attacks in Russia — and that increased intelligence cooperation is still at an early stage.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Jewish state as part of a Mideast tour just days after the school hostage tragedy.
During the visit, Israel repeatedly offered help and pushed for a global anti-terror alliance, saying the school attack showed the wide threat of Islamic violence to world security.
But Lavrov was cool to the Israeli advances, at least in public, saying any counter-terrorism alliance would have to include Russia’s traditional allies in the Arab world.
Israeli officials said Lavrov was more receptive in private.
One such official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “there’s interest” by the Russians to get more information from Israel and that both countries are “looking at ways to improve and expand” bilateral cooperation.
The chairman of the Security Committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, was in Israel this week to address an anti-terrorism conference in the coastal town of Herzliya.
In his speech Sunday, Vladimir Vasilyev thanked Israel for its cooperation in the field of aviation security and noted that Israel and Russia would continue to work together to fight terrorism, specifically in safeguarding public places.
Vasilyev did not elaborate and refused to answer questions after his talk.
Another official, however, confirmed that Vasilyev was taken on a tour of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier and spent time with the Israeli border police to examine their work.
To some degree, Israel and Russia are in the same fight: Putin has charged that Islamic militants in the breakaway republic of Chechnya are making common cause with their counterparts in the Middle East, 10 of whom were reported to be involved in the school takeover.
Israel, a frequent target of world criticism for its treatment of Palestinians, has much to gain by portraying its local fight against Palestinian militants as part of the global war on terror — and helping Russia advance that cause.
But Russia, frequently criticized for its treatment of Chechnya, has much to lose by being seen as too close to Israel.
Arab countries are an important market for Russian-made weapons and spare parts. One in every seven Russians is a Muslim, and Putin has been seeking to cultivate ties in the Arab world.
Russia is building the nuclear reactor in Iran that Israel considers to be a major threat to its security because of its potential to produce nuclear weapons. Russia’s foothold in Iran is seen as a potential moderating force to ensure the reactor is used for peaceful purposes.
“Close cooperation, too public or too tight or too declarative, with Israeli intelligence would of course sabotage Russian credibility in the eyes of the Iranians,” said Amnon Sela, a Russia expert at Israel’s Hebrew University.
But Israeli expertise in counter-terrorism — garnered over decades of fighting Palestinian militants — may prove too tempting for an angry, wounded Russia to resist.
Israel was one of a handful of countries that helped coordinate security at the recent Athens Olympics. Its agents have helped boost airport security around the world, and its daring missions to rescue hostages have captured world attention through the years.
Israeli intelligence-gathering now includes a high-flying, high-tech spy balloon to spot Palestinian rocket launchers in Gaza. The Israeli army plans to build a “smart fence” between Israel and the West Bank that will carry cameras and radar transmission to detect infiltrators.
Israel is home to more than a million native Russian speakers, providing a huge pool of people who could easily blend in without being noticed in Russia, where more than 450,000 Jews live, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Several Israeli military experts expressed dismay at the way the Russian security services handled the hostage standoff, which followed the twin airline explosions and a suicide bombing in Moscow just days before.
“There was no defined program of the Kremlin or the Russian forces to mount an organized assault,” said Uri Bar-Noi, an expert on Russian anti-terrorism policy at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.
“They didn’t know about the plan to take control of the school. They didn’t know about the terrorists moving weapons in … The biggest failure was an intelligence failure.”
Bar-Noi said one advantage for Russia of going to the Israelis for help is that “unlike Europe or the United States no limits would be imposed on (Russian) operations in Chechnya.”
He added, however, that “Israel might try for a quid pro quo on Russia helping Iran.”