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Behind Israel's reach to Russia

Officials call it part of a long warming. Others point to Netanyahu's

Two years ago, when Russia's then-Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov came to Israel to talk up Moscow's rejuvenated role in the region, his pitch didn't find too wide an audience.

But today, Israel seems to be eagerly knocking at the door of Mr. Primakov - now prime minister - seeking closer ties between the two countries and offering to help Russia regain its rank as a major player in the Middle East.

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Israel's foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, has just returned from a three-day visit to Moscow - his third mission since mid-March - in a trip geared toward strengthening relations between the two nations, because, as Mr. Sharon recently put it, "Russia is returning to the Middle East."

But with the goals of Israel's new Russia initiative still unclear, there is widespread estimation that the move is primarily aimed at luring Russian immigrants to reelect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month.

Either way, Israel's new glasnost toward Moscow is apparently being met with frustration in Washington - especially at a time when the US is at odds with Russia over NATO's air raids in Yugoslavia.

Hints in Kosovo reaction

The Russian tilt became apparent when, as the NATO bombing campaign began three weeks ago, Israel appeared sympathetic to Moscow's point of view, neither condemning the Serbs nor officially backing the NATO campaign. Mr. Netanyahu soon changed his tune and offered support for the US, but Sharon refrained, expressing concern that Israel could someday face the use of international force in its own land dispute with the Palestinians - and that an independent Kosovo would seed Islamic fundamentalism in the heart of Europe.

Netanyahu has distanced himself from those statements, calling them Sharon's own, but American officials who wished to remain unnamed asked whether they should believe that Sharon is "freelancing" foreign policy.

"It's not necessarily wrong to warm relations with Russia," says one US official, "but do they have to do it in the period when the US has the worst relations with Russia since the end of the cold war?"

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For Netanyahu's campaign strategists, in a rough race to save the premier's job, the timing might make perfect sense. Analysts here say that immigrants from the former Soviet Union - about one-sixth of the electorate - like to see their new leaders shaking hands with their old ones. Unlike Jewish refuseniks who fled the Soviet regime in the 1970s, many in the most recent wave of newcomers have maintained business and family ties in Russia.

"People appreciate [Sharon's trip] because they want closer relations to Russia, and a better understanding of the very dubious situation of Jews still in Russia," says Marina Solodkin, a member of parliament from Israeli Baaliya, the Russian immigrant party. Ms. Solodkin says Netanyahu's new initiative in Moscow will indeed win him points with Israel's approximately 680,000 Russian-speaking voters.

'Not a change'

Sharon fueled the campaign connection last week when, in an interview with New York Times columnist William Safire, he said that if he could draw another 5 percent of Russian voters here to Netanyahu - in addition to the two-thirds who already support him - he would win the election.

Netanyahu's office says that while Sharon's statements on Russia sound more forthright than in the past, they do not represent a policy shift.

"Sharon may have been more explicit, but it's not a change," says David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's communications director.

"It's the continuation of a process of trying to attain a friendlier relationship ever since the Soviet empire collapsed," he adds. "Russia has always had an interest in the Middle East. Now, instead of putting all their eggs in the Arab basket, we would rather see them put some in ours."

The Foreign Ministry says that one of the main objectives of the trip was to encourage Russia to stop the flow of sophisticated weapons technology to Iran and Syria.

Until recently, Israel had asked the US not to forgive any additional Russian debt unless it agreed to stop the leakage of technology that will help Iran develop long-range and nuclear missiles.

Last week, however, Netanyahu asked the International Monetary Fund to approve a $4.8 billion loan to Russia - eliciting rumblings from Washington about lack of coordination.

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