During his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Israel to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rather than put pressure on him.

‘There are two approaches, you can pressure Abbas or you can support him. I believe that you [Israel] prefer to press him. The Arab world tells me that Israel is not fulfilling its promises to assist Abbas. Pressure on him will damage Israel and the Palestinians. The extremists are gaining power and may even get into power,’ Putin told Sharon.

Looking towards Sharon, the Russian president said: ‘You visited me four years ago and told me about Abbas, whom I did not even know of back then. All your predictions about Arafat and Abbas were accurate.’

Sharon responded to his guest’s comments saying: ‘I am prepared and want to help Abbas, but not at the cost of Jewish lives.’

Putin is due to meet Palestinian leaders in Ramallah on Friday and is also expected to visit Arafat’s grave.

Sharon told Putin that the proposal to hold an international summit can only happen during the second stage of the implementation of the road map and no earlier.

Putin responded to Sharon’s comments saying: ‘in any case, I did not mean a forum without Israeli participation.’

As the proposal to hold an international conference in Moscow in autumn was vehemently rejected by Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried to play down the offer.

‘It was a misunderstanding of course; the president [Putin] proposed to think about holding a meeting of experts at a high level in the context of continuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process’ Lavrov said.