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Putin on defensive during Israel trip

Says deals with Syria, Iran don't pose a threat

JERUSALEM -- President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, making the first visit of a Kremlin leader to Israel, yesterday defended his arms sales to Syria and nuclear fuel agreements with Iran as no threat to Israel.

During a day of tough talk between Putin and his hosts, Israeli officials also rebuffed as premature his proposal for a Middle East peace summit in Moscow and urged him to abort a proposed sale of armored personnel carriers to the Palestinian Authority.

In official statements, Israeli and Russian leaders retreated to the common ground of agreement on the need to combat terrorism. Despite many serious differences, they described the visit as a milestone in relations between Israel and Russia, once enemies on opposite sides of the Cold War.

''Not long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a visit by the Russian head of state to Israel," Putin said at a news conference with President Moshe Katsav of Israel, the official host of the visit. ''It is a good sign."

Although business and trade relations between Moscow and Jerusalem have warmed significantly, Israeli officials say they are alarmed by recent agreements between Putin and two of Israel's hostile neighbors, Syria and Iran.

Russia plans to sell air defense missiles to Syria that would be mounted on trucks and have a range of less than 3 miles. Israeli leaders said they fear the weapons could fall into terrorists' hands and be used against Israel.

''There are disagreements between the Russian president and myself, despite the steps that the president has taken to minimize the dangers," Katsav said after the two leaders met. ''In recent days Syria has given Hezbollah additional rockets," he noted, referring to the Shi'ite Muslim organization.

''I am aware of Israel's concerns regarding the possibility that the missiles will reach the hands of terror organizations in Lebanon," Putin said. ''However, these concerns are groundless. The missiles we sold to Syria are short-range, antiaircraft missiles. . . . For these missiles to hit you, you will need to enter Syrian territory. Do you want that?"

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