JERUSALEM – Russian President Vladimir Putin faced down Israeli criticism Thursday, saying Russia’s planned sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and supply of nuclear components to Iran does not threaten Israel’s security.
Putin spoke on the second day of his historic visit to Israel — the first trip here by a Kremlin leader — before going into a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Addressing Israeli fears that he’s affecting the region’s balance of power, Putin urged Iran to do more to show the world that it’s not trying to build a nuclear weapon.
He also pledged to tackle the growing problem of anti-Semitism in his country, saying “there can be no place for xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of racial or religious intolerance” in the 21st century.
Putin was greeted Thursday morning by the pomp of an official welcoming ceremony, complete with a military honor guard and Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders.
Sharon, whose parents were born in Russia, greeted Putin in Russian and told the visitor he should “feel among brothers,” Israel Radio said.
The trip was intended to cement Russia’s rapprochement with the Jewish state and boost its profile in the international arena.
But it was shadowed by disagreements with Israel over Russia’s aid to Syria and Iran, two of Israel’s staunchest enemies. Russia has provided assistance for Iran’s nuclear program and has agreed to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Sharon repeatedly has said the missiles pose a danger to Israel and wants Putin to halt the deal.
Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said Thursday that Russia is selling Iran components that can be used to make non-conventional weapons, and that Russia’s assistance to Iran is a cause of concern.
Israel accuses Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, though Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in the Hague, Netherlands, that his country will resume its uranium enrichment program _temporarily suspended in November — if talks with European nations this week fail.
The United States announced Wednesday it had authorized the sale of as many as 100 large bunker-buster bombs to Israel, which experts saw as a warning to Iran about its nuclear ambitions.
Putin defended the moves in talks with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who holds a largely ceremonial role, saying that Russia was sensitive to Israel’s security concerns. “Regarding Iran, we are working to make sure their nuclear ability is used for peaceful means.”
The agreement with Iran requires it to return all its spent nuclear fuel to Russia so it cannot be used for military purposes, Putin said. “I agree that these steps are not enough and we have to get Iran to agree to nuclear inspections,” he said at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Katsav.
“It is necessary for our Iranian partners to reject the creation of nuclear cycle technology and not hinder placing all its nuclear program under complete international control,” he said.
Putin also sought to allay concerns about the Syrian arms deal, saying the missiles should pose no threat to Israel. “The missiles we are providing to Syria are short-range anti-aircraft missiles that cannot reach Israeli territory,” he said.
Israeli warplanes bombed alleged militant training bases outside Damascus on Oct. 5, 2003, and have buzzed one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s palaces.
Putin, whose country has traditionally supported the Arabs in their conflict with Israel, said he had personally vetoed the sale of longer-range missiles to Syria out of concern for Israel’s safety.
Officials who briefed reporters on the Putin-Katzav meeting said Russia already had signed a deal with Syria for missiles with a range of 185 miles. According to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Putin told Katsav “then I checked and my experts told me that Israel has no way to intercept these missiles so I canceled the deal.”
“We are taking the opinions and concerns of our partners into consideration, and not changing the balance of power in the region,” Putin said at the news conference. “Israel has no problem here.”
Israeli media reported Thursday that Sharon also opposes Russia’s plan to sell military equipment to the Palestinians. Palestinian officials have said Russia is interested in selling armored vehicles to their security services for use in riot control. Israel fears the armored vehicles could fall into the hands of militants.
Putin began his visit here late Wednesday on a note of controversy, proposing, just before his arrival, that Russia host a Mideast peace conference in the fall, after Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip. Palestinians warmly embraced the idea, but Israel and the United States brushed it aside.
He did not bring up the conference proposal during Thursday’s news conference with Katsav, but said the region had a unique opportunity to achieve peace.
“We think there is a chance now to achieve a just Israeli-Palestinian settlement … much will depend on Israel’s willingness and the Palestinians’ willingness, first and foremost,” Putin said.
Putin was to travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah Friday for talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Putin and Katsav unveiled a monument donated by Russia, in memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Russian sculpture depicts six nude figures, one a small child, standing in a circle surrounded by barbed wire.
The two men also discussed economic cooperation and signed a vague joint statement urging perseverance in Mideast peace efforts and pledging continued cooperation in fighting terrorism.
Katsav warmly welcomed Putin’s visit, which was seen as a dramatic gesture of support by a country that was once one of Israel’s historic enemies.
“I can say that I view Vladimir Putin as a friend of the state of Israel,” he said.