Syria Arms Talks Spur Olmert Visit

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to visit President Dmitry Medvedev amid concern about reports that Moscow is considering arming Syria with advanced missiles, Israeli officials said Friday.

One official said Olmert might try to block such a deal.

Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said final details for a visit had yet to be settled. Another government official said the trip would take place in the first half of September. A Kremlin spokesman said such a meeting was possible.

The Israeli official said Olmert, who plans to resign over a corruption scandal some time after his party elects a new leader on Sept. 17, wanted to "find out what Russia is planning to sell."

"Depending on the nature of the deal, he may try to block it," the official added.

Medvedev telephoned Olmert last week ahead of a visit to Russia by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Israeli officials said.

Interfax, citing a diplomatic source in Moscow, reported that Syria and Russia were working on complex deals involving Damascus buying anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems.

Following talks Thursday between Medvedev and Assad, Syria's state news agency denied Russian media reports that Assad said he was ready to host Russian Iskander missiles, which would be able to hit much of Israel and are designed to evade anti-missile systems.

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Washington was "obviously very concerned about reports that Russia may be providing weapons systems to Syria."

"They don't contribute to regional stability. And again I urge the Russians not to go through with these sales, if there is an intent to go through with them," he said.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that Russia was prepared to sell Syria "defensive weapons which are not breaking the regional balance of power."

Lavrov was referring to Israel, which has a superior military force and is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons.

Among hardware Syria is interested in are Russia's Pantsyr-S1 air-defense missile system, the BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system and aircraft, Interfax quoted the diplomat as saying.

Olmert made a hastily scheduled visit in October to lobby the Kremlin to support international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear development program.

Israel remains anxious not to antagonize Moscow and to seek its support for Israel's own policies in the Middle East.

Since Russia's clash with Georgia this month, Israel has sought to deflect criticism from Moscow over military equipment and training Israelis have provided to Georgia.

Israel and Syria have conducted indirect peace talks since May under Turkish mediation, after direct negotiations failed in 2000 in a dispute over the terms for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

Olmert has said he will pursue peace talks until he steps down over a fraud and bribery investigation. His party holds a leadership election on Sept. 17, although it is possible that Olmert may stay on as prime minister for some time after that.