JERUSALEM -- Russian President Vladimir Putin will land in Israel on an official visit Monday, making Israel one of the first countries he will visit since his recent election. The last visit of a Russian leader to Israel was canceled at the last minute early last year, when Dmitry Medvedev halted his plans because of a strike of Israel's foreign ministry staff. Putin himself last visited in 2005.
Israel and Russia have a wide range of bilateral issues to discuss, including tourism and cultural and business cooperation, partly because of the country's 1-million-strong Russian-speaking community, many of whom emigrated to Israel over the last two decades. A delegation of 300 political leaders, businessmen and journalists will accompany the president.
The two nations also cooperate on matters of more strategic nature such as military technology. At the same time, Russia is an ally of Israeli enemies Iran and Syria. With Russian and Israeli interests at odds on these two nations, a delicate balance act will be required during Putin's visit.
On bilateral issues, the two countries enjoy an "ongoing honeymoon," according to an analysis by Haaretz's Barak Ravid (in Hebrew) but Russia's goings-on in the Middle East harm Israel's interests at times and unnamed foreign ministry sources told Ravid this reality is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Russia may buy $50 million worth of Israeli drones and accompanying command and control centers, according to recent Russian reports. The two countries may also soon begin joint development of a new unmanned aerial vehicle. Israel may try to use this interest in an attempt to sway the super-power's resistance on regional issues, as well as Russia's interest in helping Israel develop its natural gas fields in the Mediterranean. Russia may also be interested in tapping into an emerging alliance between Israel, Greece and Cyprus to offset tensions with Turkey.
"Russia's standing in the Middle East was undermined by the Arab Spring," writes Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to Russia and currently a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel-Aviv-based think tank. Russia seeks new levers of influence to replace the ones it has lost, Magen writes, stressing that these would not, however, undo Russia's good relations with Iran and Syria.
Another commentator, Adar Primor, wrote that despite the "unexpected alliance" between Russia and Israel, the first won't change its basic policies in the Middle East and the latter won't exchange its alliance with the United States, "certainly not if Netanyahu's friend Mitt Romney, who has called Russia 'America's top geopolitical adversary' wins the November presidential elections."
Meretz, a left-wing movement and member of the parliamentary opposition, has called for a demonstration outside Prime Minister Netanyahu's residence Monday, about the time of his working luncheon with Putin, to protest what they called on their Facebook page "Putin's help of the massacre in Syria." Lawmakers attended a recent rally with a similar message in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Jewish daily, Forward, recently published an editorial urging Israel to "disinvite Putin" on these grounds and others.
Russian Israelis casting absentee ballots in Russia's recent presidential election were divided on their support for Putin.
During the visit, Putin will attend the unveiling of a monument, a tribute to the Red Army and the Soviet Union's role in defeating Nazi Germany and liberating the death camps in World War II. Throughout Monday, he will hold working meetings with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, who will also host a special evening for Putin.
The presidents will discuss strengthening relations between the two countries, the peace process, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Syria crisis and the wider Middle East, according to Peres' office.
The Russian president will also visit the West Bank, where he will inaugurate the Russian Cultural Center in Bethlehem and meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday. The two are expected to discuss issues relating to the peace process, especially given Russia's membership on the United Nations' Security Council, according to press reports.
The Russian delegation will then continue to Jordan.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Credit: Alexey Druzhinin / AFP/Getty Images