ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began a four-day visit to Russia yesterday, hoping to save Israel's newly forged ties with Moscow from signs that mistrust and hostility may be reasserting themselves.
Mr. Rabin's high profile trip - he has taken a military marching band with him - marks the first time ever an Israeli premier has been to Moscow. It comes three years after Israel reestablished diplomatic relations that had been broken since the Six-Day War in 1967.
``With the fact that Russia is now having a more active foreign policy, I see a need to achieve a dialogue with the top Russian leadership, so this activity will be in the framework of the two superpowers, Russia and the United States,'' Rabin told Israeli Army radio before leaving. The government has been worried for several months that Russia's Middle East policy was growing unpredictably independent of US policy.
The Middle East peace process launched in Madrid in November 1991 was officially cosponsored by Washington and Moscow, but in reality, the Russian role was little more than that of a handmaiden to the US.
Recently, and especially since the strong showing by conservative nationalists in the last Russian parliamentary elections, Moscow has begun to take its own diplomatic initiatives, without always consulting Washington.
``There is a desire on the part of the Russians to maintain a sphere of Russian interests rather than just be a vassal of the West,'' says Stefani Hoffman, an expert on the former Soviet Union at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. ``They see the Middle East as an area where they can show their independence.''
When Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev arrived unexpectedly in the Middle East last month, however, helping to restart the peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli leaders told him bluntly to coordinate his diplomacy with Washington. Shortly beforehand, Rabin had fretted publicly that ``whenever there is no cooperation ... between the two cosponsors [of the peace process], there is a possibility to try to exploit it by some of the parties to the negotiations.''
This was a clear reference to Palestinian hopes of reviving their old alliance with Moscow, hopes that are mirrored by Russian conservatives' vision of renewing Moscow's traditional ties with the Arab world, at Israel's expense.
Cooled by the conservative winds in Moscow, Russian relations with Israel are currently worse than they have been for some time.
``We will have a chance to clarify our positions to the Russian leadership with the intention that Russia can play a positive role, as it has done in Yugoslavia, and I hope to reach much closer contacts with the Russian leadership on the political process,'' Rabin said.
The Israeli leader is also expected to suggest to his hosts that they have a common interest in containing a common threat: radical Islamic political movements on the rise in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Israeli planners, looking beyond peace accords with the Jewish state's immediate neighbors, see Islamic states such as Iran as a major long-term threat.
Mr. Kozyrev was worried enough by radical Islamists after a trip to the Tajik-Afghan border last September to mention ``forces of subversion, terrorism, and extremism'' in his speech at the White House ceremony marking the Israeli-PLO accord.
``There is common ground here, and I am sure Israel has intelligence information that could be of use'' to the Russian authorities, Dr. Hoffman suggests.
In between his talks with Russian leaders, including President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Rabin will meet leaders of Russia's large Jewish community.
Nearly half a million Jews have come to Israel since the former Soviet Union opened its doors in 1989, but about 1.4 million Jews remain in the republics that used to make up the USSR.
The Israeli premier will do his best to encourage them to move to Israel. ``We must remember that the potential growth of the Israeli population depends on immigration from Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union,'' Rabin told Army radio.
Although 600,000 Russian Jews have done the necessary paperwork to move to Israel, immigration has slowed in recent months to about 50,000 people a year.
During his trip, Rabin will also take timeout to visit the hometown of one Russian Jew who did move to the land that would later become Israel. He will go to St. Petersburg, where Rosa Cohen, his mother, was born.