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20 Mar, 2008 22:32

Israel becomes visa-free for Russians

Russians have been granted visa-free travel to Israel. The country's Foreign Minister has signed an agreement in Tel Aviv lifting travel restrictions between the two countries. His visit was part of a tour of the Middle East.

Lavrov met Israeli counterpart, Tsipi Livni, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He also held talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Both Lavrov and Peres have hailed Russia-Israel relations.

“We consider Israel a very important partner in the Middle East. We have many common interests – fighting such things as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and, of course, we want to contribute to the efforts to establish peace in the Middle East,” Lavrov said.

The Israeli President echoed him: “We know that Russia is an important player in the Middle East, and we welcome it. I do believe that Russia can play an important part in the peace process”.

Earlier Sergey Lavrov met President Assad of Syria and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus.

He said Russia would continue dialogue with Hamas in the hope of restoring Palestinian unity.

Ups and downs in Russia–Israel relations

Both countries have now put ink to paper in an agreement that comes into effect three months from now. Israeli and Russian tourists no longer need visas to visit one another’s countries for up to three months at a time.

Years ago this would’ve seemed impossible. Especially after diplomatic ties between both countries were severed following the Six Day War in 1967

It was only after former President Vladimir Putin’s visit three years ago that relations reached a new level of reconciliation.

Russia and Israel currently have very strong ties. Up to one in five residents of Israel are citizens of the former Soviet Union and it’s estimated up to a third of the Russian population have links to Israel, whether direct or indirect.

Removing visa restrictions between the two countries seems the next logical step.

“Fifteen years ago our relations were practically at zero both politically and economically. It's enough to remember that at the time the volume of our trade stood at about $US 12 million. Now we have a fully-fledged relationship with Israel, both countries regard each other as very important partners,” said Gennady Tarasov, Russian Ambassador to Israel.

As well as improved trade, Israel estimates cancelling visa requirements will bring 500,000 Russian tourists to Israel each year, generating 10,000 jobs. As well as making it easier to visit, the agreement will also help those already there.

“I hope as well as making progress as far as visas are concerned, and concerning Russian property in Israel, we have also laid the groundwork for pensions for Russian citizens living permanently in Israel,” said Tzipi Livni, Israeli Foregin Minister.

Fifty years ago, such a step would have seemed impossible. The Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, offering support to Arab nations.

The chance of reconciliation returned only when Putin became the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit the country in 2005.

Russia is a part of the Middle East quartet, which works for peace in the region. But it also engages in dialogue with Hamas, seen by the U.S. and EU as a terrorist group.

“Until the renewal of relations the Russians were very much on one side, on the Arab side, and now they're on both. That means they see both sides of the issues which is a very important component here in the Middle East,” said Miri Eisen, an advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister.
A visa-free regime is aimed at cementing Russia’s unique relationship with Israel.

“We support active political dialogue with Israel at both the higher and lower levels and we see in our relations a key factor which depends to a large extent on the stability of the region,” Sergey Lavrov said.

The security establishment has shot down concerns of increased cross-border crime and illegal trade. It says it will deal with the situation in much the same way as it does with other European countries that also have no-visa agreements with Israel.