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Trump, Putin both want piece of Middle East peace talks

Russia and the United States can each bring advantages to the Mideast peace negotiating table, but neither is likely to solve all the issues without the other's cooperation.
White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump (2nd-R), U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (3rd-R), U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (C), U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan (3rd-L), White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (2nd-L) and Israeli officials pose for a photo upon arrival at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel May 13, 2018. Courtesy David Azagury/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Handout via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC1E15DFCD

As US President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner recently toured the Middle East discussing Trump's proposed peace plan, Russia was busy with its own efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Given that the Trump administration hasn't revealed many details about the plan, Moscow presumes Kushner was promoting US brokerage of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and discussing recent developments in the Gaza Strip. Russia believes Trump's controversial decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem virtually ensures that the Palestinians will refuse to accept the United States as primary mediators in the peace process. That said, however, the United States still has a lot to offer the Palestinians and the region as a whole. Financial aid, in particular, is likely to convince the Arab leaders who Kushner was wooing to back Trump’s peace plan. There are already reports that four Mideast majors — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan — are onboard, even without the Palestinians' support.

A week after Kushner’s tour, Russia made its own moves. On June 25, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin participated in a UN committee meeting about contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Vershinin stressed that, given the agency's significant humanitarian work, it's important to maintain funding despite the United States having cut its contributions.  Although there is a general structure within the UN, the UNHCR, that works with refugees all over the world — as opposed to UNRWA which focuses exclusively on Palestinians — Moscow is still pro-active in supporting the latter.

“Successful, uninterrupted and predictable funding of the agency that performs an important humanitarian function for Palestinian refugees is conducive to the Middle East settlement, based on the generally recognized norms of international law in line with the concept of building two states,” said Vershinin.

On the same day in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov hosted a Hamas delegation headed by Hamas political bureau member Mousa Abu Marzouk. As Al-Monitor reported on the meeting, Bogdanov and Marzouk discussed ways to alleviate the Gaza Strip blockade, reduce Palestinian Authority (PA) sanctions against the enclave and explore potential Russian aid.

The next day, on June 26, Bogdanov met with Israeli Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren. The official press statement said the two diplomats discussed, among other topics, "the prospects of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process and important issues related to the further consistent development of Russia-Israel bilateral relations.” The meetings were meant to convey Russia’s desire to play a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and not concede leadership on this issue solely to the United States.

The next move Russia has up its sleeve is to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly invited both to Moscow for the final game of the FIFA World Cup on July 15.  While Abbas confirmed his visit, Netanyahu has not yet confirmed.  It’s yet to be seen whether each takes advantage of the chance to woo Moscow on its own agenda, but Russia sees the occasion as an opening for face-to-face conversations to consolidate Moscow's mediator status through soccer diplomacy.

Moreover, the date coincides with the Putin-Trump summit set for July 16 in Helsinki. The central issue of that meeting is said to be Syria, but if Abbas and Netanyahu — together or separately — get to see Putin the day before, there’s a strong likelihood the Russian leader will want to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with his American counterpart.

A potential meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo — which is now being discussed and is supposed to set the stage for the presidential summit — is likely to include the Middle East peace process on the agenda.

In Moscow you may hear quite often that today, Russia is the only country well-positioned to be an unbiased broker between the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That it is only partially correct. Russia's own shortcomings and limitations in the process have been exposed several times throughout the decades of mediation attempts. So have those by the US. Only a sincere effort by both Russia and the United States, done in partnership as opposed to in competition with one another, has the potential to break the deadlock of this long-lasting conflict.

Relations between the United States and Russia are indeed in poor shape, and each one's appetite for a "win" in the Middle East could result in a tug of war. It remains to be seen whether Putin and Trump will demonstrate the kind of leadership needed for cooperation, or if the competitive approach to the conflict will eventually prevail.

Max Suchkov contributed reporting to this story.