1. PUTIN BECOMES FIRST RUSSIAN LEADER TO VISIT ISRAEL… Vladimir Putin became the first Russian – or Soviet – president to pay an official visit to Israel when he arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday night. Despite a list of agreements that will come out of the state visit, three points of disagreement are overshadowing Putin’s historical trip. Israel has said it will prevent armored personnel carriers that Russia wants to give to the Palestinians from reaching the Palestinian Authority, and will continue to press Putin to forgo the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Israel – with American agreement – has also rejected Putin’s call for a Mideast peace conference to be held this fall. The Russian president is scheduled to meet in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas before his departure on Friday. It was there that Putin had intended to announce the gift of the armored personnel carriers. It remains to be seen whether that will happen or whether Ariel Sharon will capitulate on the issue. ‘Abbas has supported Putin’s peace conference plan. Another issue might prove to be sticky for Israel, if Putin goes ahead with his reported intent to ask Israel to extradite what he calls “oligarchs” – three Russian businessmen living in Israel who are wanted in Russia. With one out of six Israelis of Russian origin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not accede to the request.
2. U.S. ‘BUNKER-BUSTER-BOMB’ SALE TO ISRAEL MOVES FORWARD… The U.S. Department of Defense has given formal notification of a proposed sale of 100 GBU-28 ‘bunker-busting’ bombs to Israel. The sale of the 5,000 pound weapon, which is designed to be effective against underground targets such as bunkers and command centers, immediately raised speculation over possible Israeli plans to destroy Iran’s nuclear reactor that is under construction before it can become operative. Although Israel has denied such intent, many international observers believe that it remains a very real scenario. An analyst for The Media Line explained that even if the intent is not to attack the reactor, Israeli possession of the bunker-busters makes the threat more convincing and thereby reinforces the negotiating position of Britain, France and Germany as they try to convince Iran to suspend its nuclear program.
3. PROTESTERS OPPOSE ISRAELI FM VISIT TO MAURITANIA… The west African nation of Mauritania, one of only three member-states of the Arab League to have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, is Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom’s destination for a May 3 visit. It was, therefore, not unexpected that Shalom’s planned arrival would draw protest. On Wednesday, several hundred students at a university in the capital city of Nouakchott demonstrated against what a rally organizer called “the opportunistic visit of this criminal in the land of Islam!” Protesters proclaimed “No to the normalization with the Zionist entity!” while riot police prevented demonstrators from approaching the nearby Israeli embassy. Egypt and Jordan are the other Arab League members with ambassadors in Israel.
4. PALESTINIAN CHAIRMAN THREATENS TO USE FORCE TO MAINTAIN CEASE-FIRE WITH ISRAEL… The Palestinian news agency WAFA reported on Thursday that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas has threatened to use force to ensure the continuation of a de facto cease-fire with Israel. ‘Abbas said in a statement that, “Whoever violates this general consensus … must be hit by an iron fist. Whoever wants to sabotage [the quiet] with rocket fire or shooting must be stopped by us even if that requires using force.” Against an increase in violent incidents, Israel has set the dismantling of terrorist organizations as a precondition for resuming negotiations.