Putin urges Mideast talks progress


Russian president Vladimir Putin today called for progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and said steps taken by either side without negotiation may harm efforts to resolve the conflict.

"Any unilateral actions before peace is finally reached are counterproductive," Mr Putin said after meeting Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Mr Putin, who met yesterday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, is scheduled to wrap up his Middle East tour with a visit to Jordan later in the day.

Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet of world powers trying to advance Israeli-Palestinian talks, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

It is the only member of the group that has held meetings in the past five years with Hamas, the Islamic movement that controls the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Mr Putin endorsed efforts by Mr Abbas and leaders of Hamas to form a coalition government, saying Palestinian unity would also help peace efforts with Israel.

Mr Abbas, standing beside Mr Putin at his Bethlehem office compound, said he supported Russian efforts to hold a peace conference in Moscow. He told Mr Putin that settlement in the West Bank, where more than 300,000 Israelis live amid 2.6 million Palestinians, is a unilateral step that represents "the main obstacle" to peace efforts.

On the occasion of the Russian leader's visit, Mr Abbas named a street in Bethlehem after Mr Putin, placing a plaque to mark the honour on the wall of an administrative building there.

In Jerusalem yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said he and Mr Putin were in agreement that Iran should not get nuclear weapons.

More than 1 million Russian speakers live in Israel, or close to 15 per cent of the population, after a wave of Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union.