Israeli Foreign Minister To Russia, Belarus Monday

JERUSALEM (AFP)--Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman leaves for his first official visits to Russia and Belarus Monday to discuss Iran and bilateral issues, his ministry said in a statement.

In Moscow, Lieberman, a Russian-speaking Soviet emigrant, will meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, counterpart Sergei Lavrov and heads of the Jewish community.

He will discuss "political developments and regional threats with his hosts" as well as bilateral relations, said the statement.

Topping the agenda for the visit is the issue of Iran's controversial nuclear program, a "severe geopolitical threat to Israel and the entire region," it said.

Russia is helping build the first nuclear reactor in Iran, which Israel considers its archenemy after repeated statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map."

Widely considered to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, Israel along with main ally Washington suspects Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear program, a charge Tehran has repeatedly denied.

Moscow is seeking a greater role in the Middle East and a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said Friday Russia hopes Lieberman's visit will boost the country's hopes of hosting a Middle East peace conference this year.

The statement from Lieberman's ministry made no mention of the conference idea but Israel has so far been unenthusiastic.

Israel is unhappy about Russia's contacts with the Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip, an Iranian-backed group pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Russia is the only member of the Quartet - the European Union, the United Nations and the U.S. - to be formally on speaking terms with Hamas, classified as a terrorist group by the E.U., Israel and the U.S.

Following his stay in Russia, Lieberman will travel to Belarus where he will meet President Alexander Lukashenko and Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov Thursday in Minsk.

It will mark Lieberman's first trip to Russia or Belarus since he was sworn in as foreign minister along with the rest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's largely right-wing government March 31.



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