Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said his country was working to create a free trade area involving Israel and Egypt.
He said such an agreement, which is intended to remove or reduce trade barriers between countries such as import duties, would be similar to Russia’s arrangement with Iran.
Putin, speaking to reporters in Saudi Arabia during a state visit, touted Moscow’s potential role as a facilitator of Middle East peace due to its good relations with Iran and Arab nations.
The Russian leader also stated that he supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but said the long-gestating US peace plan was “not clear.”
The peace proposal was expected to be released following September’s elections in Israel but with the country’s political system deadlocked following the vote, and no clear prospect for a new government to be formed in the near future, it remains unclear when the plan will be unveiled.
Relations between Jerusalem and Moscow have seen increasing tensions in recent days following the sentencing of an Israeli woman to seven and a half years in prison after she was found with a small quantity of marijuana, in what is seen in Israel as a wildly excessive punishment.
A senior diplomatic source on Sunday urged citizens to “think twice” before visiting Russia, as Israeli leaders stepped up their appeals to Putin to release 26-year-old Naama Issachar.
Issachar’s harsh sentence is seen in Israel as a Russian effort to compel Israel to accept a prisoner exchange deal, in which Israel would free a Russian hacker who is set to be extradited to the US.
Israel has highly sensitive relations with Russia, which is a dominant player in the region. Russia is deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, and played a central role, alongside Iran, in preventing the fall of the Assad regime in the civil war, while Israel is seeking to prevent Iran from deepening its military presence across the northern border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cultivated close ties to Putin, flying frequently to meet with him. About a million of Israel’s nine million citizens are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants.
Russia’s efforts to strike a regional trade deal involving Egypt and Israel come as Jerusalem says it is working to advance non-aggression treaties with several Arab countries in the Gulf.
A Channel 12 news report earlier this month said the deal in the workings is designed to provide for friendly bilateral relations, cooperation in a variety of fields, and no war or incitement, as both Israel and the Gulf states face an increasingly belligerent Iran.
In recent years Israel has been courting Arab nations which do not recognize the Jewish state. Though no formal relations exist, ties with several moderate Gulf states have appeared to warm, with visits by Israeli officials and increasingly accommodating statements by Arab leadership.