Israel PM to Moscow as Gaza violence spirals

Maan News Agency | March 23, 2011 | By Gavin Rabinowitz

JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was leaving for Moscow on Wednesday as the Kremlin urged Israel and the Palestinians not to let the peace process fall victim to surging turmoil at home and in the region. 

The Israeli prime minister was to arrive in Moscow the same day Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was wrapping up his own visit to Russia, but the two leaders were not scheduled to meet, officials said.

Following talks with Abbas on Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he was concerned the violence in Libya and other countries around the region could damage the deadlocked peace talks.

“Some time has passed since my (January) visit to the Palestinian territories and unfortunately, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has not improved,” Medvedev said.

The Kremlin invited both leaders for talks just three weeks ahead of a key meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet — which groups the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — due to take place in Berlin on April 15.

It also comes as Israel and the Palestinian militants in Gaza engaged in an increasingly deadly bout of tit-for-tat violence, which on Wednesday saw two Grad rockets slamming into the southern city of Beersheva.

A day earlier, Israeli forces killed eight Gazans, including two minors and four militants, in attacks aimed at stamping out rocket fire.

The killings follow days of rising cross-border violence, which has ramped up tensions between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers and once again raised fears of a large-scale Israeli military invasion.

World powers, including Russia, have been seeking ways to coax both parties back to the negotiating table, but the events of the last week make the prospects of a large-scale confrontation look far more likely than a return to peace talks.

Direct negotiations ran aground late last year in an intractable dispute about Jewish settlements, with the Palestinians saying they will not talk while Israel builds on land they want for a future state.

A day before his departure, Netanyahu said the two sides were further apart than ever, and blamed the Palestinians for the impasse.

However, Israeli officials said it was important to talk to Moscow about a range of regional issues.

“They are likely to discuss regional issues, the greater Middle East is going through a period of great change and we would like to exchange assessments with Moscow,” a senior official said on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu was likely to raise the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme and Russian arms sales to the region, particularly a recent pledge to sell advanced cruise missiles to Syria.

Israel, which is still technically at war with Syria and fears the regime’s close ties with Iran, suspects the shipment of Russian anti-ship Yakhont missiles is ultimately destined to reach Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

This is Netanyahu’s second official trip to Moscow since taking office in 2009, although he did conduct a secret visit to the Russian capital in September of that year which highlighted the role Russia plays in Israel’s attempts to scotch Iran’s nuclear drive.

During the 24-hour visit, Netanyahu will meet Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Netanyahu was to have met with Medvedev in January on a planned visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the Russian leader had to cancel the Israeli leg of the trip following a strike by foreign ministry diplomats.

Officials said Netanyahu was likely to invite Medvedev back to Israel to make up for the mishap.

As a goodwill gesture ahead of the trip, Israel on Monday began vacating a 19th century building in central Jerusalem, known as Sergei’s Courtyard.

The building was initially constructed for Russian pilgrims but it was taken over by the British Mandate authorities, then passed on to Israel. Ownership of the structure will now be transferred to Moscow.

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