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Putin consults with Israeli leaders on Syria, Iran

JERUSALEM — Russian President Vladimir Putin conferred with Israeli leaders Monday during a 24-hour visit that juxtaposed the much improved ties between the two countries with their sharp differences, chief among them the Iranian nuclear program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other senior Israeli officials held talks with Putin that focused on Iran and other regional issues, according to the prime minister's office.

But there was little hope here that the visit would change Russian policy in the region.

Russia was the host of the talks between six world powers and Iran this month, which ended without even a commitment to another high-level meeting, and Israeli leaders have argued that the talks merely give Iran more time to develop what they insist is a military nuclear program.

Iran insists its program is peaceful, and Russia has been reluctant to support tougher sanctions against Iran.

Israeli leaders have also called for more international resolve to end the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar Assad's military is trying to crush an armed uprising. Russia is viewed as Assad's principal foreign defender.

At a joint news conference after their meeting, Netanyahu said he and Putin had agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran "presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole."

Speaking in Russian, Putin said that he and Netanyahu had discussed Syria and the Iranian nuclear program, and that the talks had been detailed and very useful.

The main reason for the visit, officials here said, was the inauguration of a national monument in the coastal city of Netanya honoring Soviet Red Army soldiers who died during World War II and their role in the victory over Nazi Germany. The visit had been scheduled around the completion of construction of the monument.

Diplomatic disagreements aside, though, Israel was eager to cultivate its relations with a major world and regional player. Trade between Israel and Russia is increasing, and Russian tourists are second only to Americans in number, though many of them come only for a one-day Holy Land excursion as part of a cruise or a longer stay in nearby Turkey.