Sha’ath: Putin plans to arm PA, despite protests

By Aluf Benn and Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondents, Haaretz Service and Agencies Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to arm the Palestinians, despite Israel’s objections, Palestinian Authority Deputy Prime Minister and Information Minister Nabil Sha’ath told Saudi newspaper Al Watan. Sha’ath said Putin would announce his intentions during Friday’s visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah. Putin was meeting PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders in Ramallah on Friday and was also expected to visit the grave of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat. However, Putin’s plan to give the PA 50 armored personnel carriers and two helicopters may be subject to Israeli approval, Palestinian officials indicated Friday. “This will be coordinated with Israel because Israel controls our borders,” Sha’ath said. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were waiting for a formal response from Israel to find out whether they would receive the armored vehicles. “I think I can say the choppers are a done deal, but about the vehicles, we still don’t have a clear-cut answer from the Israelis,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. The helicopters would be used to transport Abbas. Israel destroyed the Palestinian Authority’s presidential helicopters as part of its campaign to limit the movement of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But a government source said this week that Israel would not allow the troop carriers into the country. “First let’s see some steps toward peace and then it will be possible to strengthen the Palestinian security forces, which are meanwhile taking part in fighting against us,” the source said. “The entry of any weapons to the territories requires our agreement and we do not want to see armored vehicles pitted against us.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is accompanying Putin on his visit, said, “This is an offer not so much for Israel, but for the Palestinians.” Russia says its arms won’t endanger Israel Israel is also against the Russian sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, a deal U.S. President George W. Bush also criticized. “We didn’t appreciate that,” he said Thursday, “but we made ourselves clear.” Putin, however, dismissed concerns that the Syria deal posed a threat, saying Thursday, “Russian weapons will not endanger Israel.” The Russian leader met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav on Thursday as part of a landmark visit, the first by a Russian head of state in Israel, that began Wednesday night. Putin told Sharon during a three-hour meeting that he at first had vetoed the sale of Russian missiles to Syria. He also promised not to let Iran threaten Israel. Sharon spoke of Israel’s fears that Russian weapons sold to Iran and other Arab countries would end up in the hands of terror groups. Putin told Katsav and Sharon that he had vetoed the suggestion of his army and defense establishment to sell advanced weapons and long-range missiles to Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, after learning that Israel had no counter-response. He said Russia had been negotiating the sale of Iskander missiles, which have a 300-kilometer range that could cover Israel. “I personally forbade the deal, so you cannot say we are acting in an irresponsible way. On the contrary, we are taking the concerns of our Israeli partners into consideration,” he said. Putin and Sharon decided to increase intelligence cooperation and set up a joint anti-terror mechanism. “We are strategic allies when it comes to anything to do with [the war against] terror,” Putin told Sharon. The Russian president told Sharon that his visit to Israel was meant to turn over a new leaf in relations between Jerusalem and Moscow and to mend any mistakes of the past. Speaking of Russia’s deal to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, Putin said these were short-range SA-18 missiles that could not jeopardize Israel, except in cases of flights over Syrian territory. He said he would pass provide Israel with information regarding the missile deal. Putin said the missile system was installed on vehicles and could not be operated if removed (as terrorists would do). Putin said overall weapons sales to the Middle East total some $9 billion, some $6.8 billion of which are from the United States and only $500 million worth of weapons from Russia. “So why is Israel concerned specifically by our supply of missiles to Syria?” he asked. “Are you sure the weapons in the $9 billion deals won’t reach terrorists in the Middle East? I have no certainty about that, but I can promise you that our systems won’t.” Russia concerned about a nuclear Iran Speaking about Russia’s aid to Iran’s nuclear program, Putin said, “Russia is just as concerned about a nuclear Iran as Israel.” He said the aid is intended to help Iran attain nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only, and that Russia would make sure the uranium it sells to Iran for electric power is not misused. However, he added that Iran must do more to assure the world it isn’t trying to build atomic weapons. He called on the Iranians to “abandon all technology to manufacture a full nuclear cycle” and open its nuclear sites to international supervision. He said Tehran’s agreement to return spent nuclear fuel to Russia “does not seem to be enough.” Putin: Palestinian extremists gaining power Referring to the peace process, Putin said, “There are two approaches. You can pressure Abbas or you can support him. I believe that you [Israel] prefer to press him. The Arab world tells me that Israel is not fulfilling its promises to assist Abbas. Pressure on him will do damage to both Israel and the Palestinians. The extremists are gaining power and may even get into power,” he warned. Putin surprised many by saying that former PA chairman Yasser Arafat “did not want to be a head of state, but rather the leader of a revolution. Abbas, however, wants to be the head of a state.” Putin told Sharon, “You visited me four years ago and told me about Abbas, whom I did not even know of back then. All your predictions about Arafat and Abbas were accurate.” Sharon said, “I am prepared and want to help Abbas, but not at the cost of Jewish lives.” Sharon added that Israel is committed to the road map for Middle East peace, but the Palestinians must combat the terror infrastructures and dismantle the terror groups. Abbas, he said, is attempting to reach agreements with the terror groups and to absorb them into the political system, which is against the road map. Putin visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem on Thursday. He wore a skullcap during the visit at his hosts’ request and crossed himself watching a film with pictures of concentration camp survivors after their liberation. Putin later laid a wreath in memory of Holocaust victims. Sharon said he hoped the visit would improve relations between the two countries, and then turned to Putin to say in Russian, “You are among friends.” BPI-info