By Elise Labott
Russian presidents don't come to Israel every day. The last time President Vladmir Putin came to Israel was in 2005, the first leader of Russia to visit the country since the time of the czars.
There should be good reason for close ties between the two countries.
Israel is home more than a million Russian-speakers who came from parts of the former Soviet Union. And Israelis will never forget that it was the Soviets who liberated many of the Jews from death camps in the Holocaust. On Monday, Putin stood next to President Shimon Peres at the unveiling of a "Victory Monument" in the Israeli city of Netanya, marking the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany.
But these strong historical ties don't necessarily translate to modern day cooperation.
On foreign policy issues, Israel and Russia could not be further apart. Russia supplies deadly weapons to Israel's greatest enemies, Syria and Iran. Moscow never misses an opportunity to criticize Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian territories. During Russia's war with Georgia, it was Israel that supplied sophisticated weaponry to Tbilisi.
Trade between the two countries is a modest $3 billion a year. Decent, said one official, but nothing compared with the huge potential for cooperation, not only in trade but in culture, science, technology and tourism.
"We have a dialogue, but no understandings," one Israeli official said of the relationship with Russia.
Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Peres sought to strengthen their relationship with Putin, with Peres calling him "the most experienced president in our world" and a leader who could contribute to peace in the region.
Israel wants Russia to curb its support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, pressure the regime in Iran to halt its nuclear program and constrain missile sales to Iran that could impede an Israeli nuclear strike.
The Russian president pledged cooperation but was noncommittal. He did, however, flex a lot of Russian muscle. He arrived in Israel with an entourage of about 400 ministers, advisers, security personnel and journalists and spoke of Russian immigrants in Israel as if they still belong to the Russian Empire.
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Putin continued his campaign to reinforce Russian prescience, culture and prestige in the region, attending the official opening of the Russian Scientific and Cultural Center in Bethlehem. He then left for Jordan, where he was to visit a hospice for Russian Christian pilgrims at a site on the Jordan River revered as the place where Jesus was baptized.
With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Putin was more forward leaning, saying Russia's position on the peace process was closer to that of the Palestinians than of Israel. Putin made clear his desire for Russia to become more active in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reintroducing an idea for a peace conference in Moscow in an effort to jump-start negotiations.
At a time when Moscow is vilified around the world for its unwavering support for the Syrian regime and Putin is facing widespread criticism for his crackdown on political opposition, the Russian president found a receptive audience.
His visit also is a not-so-subtle message to the United States that Russia will vie for influence in a region where American diplomatic leadership has had too few successes in recent years to remain the only power broker. And it should be a signal to President Barack Obama, who has not visited Israel in three years since becoming president, that showing up matters.
"It's clear this visit is a nudge to the Americans, to tell them 'I am here on your turf, and I am player here too,' " one Israeli official said. "It's not confrontational, but it's telling the Americans, 'don't overlook us.' "