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Moscow, Tel Aviv exchange favors as Netanyahu shops for support on US plan

In their second meeting in two weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to placate Russian President Vladimir Putin over the US peace plan, but Moscow may see its own merits in the deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a fleeting visit to Moscow en route from Washington, where he had taken part in US President Donald Trump’s presentation of his “deal of the century.”

Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin met last week in Jerusalem and the meeting in Moscow is their fifth over the last 12 months. Netanyahu also came to take home US-Israeli national Naama Issachar, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in Russian prison for drug smuggling and drug possession in October. Public opinion in Israel considered the sentence disproportionately harsh, as the offense had not involved any border crossing. Issachar was arrested in the transit zone of the airport on the way from Delhi to Tel Aviv.

In Israel, Issachar was called a “political hostage” to be released in exchange for Alexei Burkov, a Russian hacker arrested in Tel Aviv in 2015, for whom the United States had filed an extradition request. However, Burkov had already been extradited to Washington and the Issachar case threatened to disrupt Putin’s visit to Israel scheduled for late January. But it was reported in the run-up to the trip that the woman might be pardoned. Meanwhile, the Israeli media took note of the developments in the deadlocked ownership case concerning Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem’s Old City. Russia has sought control of the Russian Orthodox site since 2015. Some came to believe that the decision to hand over the property was made in return for the release of Issachar. In Jerusalem, Putin publicly promised the Israeli prime minister that “everything will be OK” with her. The decree to pardon and free the Israeli woman was signed on Wednesday night, on the eve of Netanyahu’s flight to Moscow.

A source close to the Israeli prime minister said the pardon was not part of any kind of deal with the Russian government, explaining, “The pardon is Putin’s way of paying tribute to Netanyahu.”

Netanyahu typically seeks to show the Israeli public that he has a powerful impact on world leaders, including Putin. However, there was not a tint of superiority in his speech in the Kremlin. On the contrary, he complimented the Russian leader over and over again, thanking him for Issachar’s pardon as well as for the president’s personal contributions to bilateral relations. 

In the Kremlin, Netanyahu stressed that Putin was the first world leader he was meeting after his Washington trip, apparently to impress the Russian president as an unprecedented honor. “I would like to hear your opinion and to see how we can gather strength for peace and conflict-free existence,” Netanyahu told him.

On the plane home, Netanyahu told the reporters who accompanied him that he would have met with Putin even if Issachar had not been in Moscow.

Interestingly, Netanyahu had never before tried to bring up the Middle East settlement during his visits to Russia, even though Moscow would always place the issue on the agenda. In most cases, the Israeli prime minister dwelled on the situation in Syria and the “Iranian threat.”

Putin treated Netanyahu’s introductory remarks with marked restraint and the issue of “the situation in the Middle East” came last in his welcome speech. He recalled his visit to Jerusalem and voiced his opinion on the case of Issachar and bilateral relations and casually noted that he was “delighted to have this opportunity to discuss these areas of our cooperation with you, as well as regional developments.”

Following the meeting, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was succinct when asked about the US proposal, saying only that Moscow “continues to analyze the plan.”

Earlier both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Deputy Mikhail Bogdanov had pointed out that Moscow would like to first hear the views of all the parties involved, not only the Palestinians and the Israelis, but also Arab countries, the European Union and the United Nations.

After the Kremlin talks, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed Moscow’s readiness for “coordination and further constructive work towards the collective strengthening of efforts towards a complete resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” She also emphasized that Russia “is keeping a close eye on how Arab countries are reacting to the US initiative," observing, “As of now, their reaction has been mostly negative and skeptical.”

Russia's initial reaction to Trump’s peace plan had been cooler.

A Russian diplomatic source who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity told said not to expect any appraisals before before an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers scheduled for Saturday.

“Broadly speaking, Moscow casts doubts over the prospects of 'the deal of the century.' There will be hardly anyone to advance the doomed American project. But if Arab countries decide to base their discussion on the Trump plan, why not do this?” — the source asked.

Thus, for all the restrained remarks, Netanyahu’s visit comes at the right time for Moscow. The Russian president has got a chance to display his recent penchant for serving as a peacemaker and broker, notably on the Arab-Israeli track, which Moscow dismissed long ago as hopeless. Putin now has the chance to make some gains rather than follow Trump's lead.

There are a few incentives for Moscow to jump aboard the US plan.

One is the desire not to be left out of the negotiating process should it suddenly pick up steam. Last year, waiting for the plan to be revealed at any minute, the Palestinians spoke to world leaders about a potential international conference to kick-start negotiations in spite of the United States. Moscow was considered a possible venue, and now it is possible to put the idea into action. Last week in Jerusalem, Putin suggested convening a summit for the heads of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, citing the Berlin conference on Libya as an example.

There is also the Syrian angle. Moscow stressed that US maps officially show the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Syria is the only Israeli neighbor not to be included in the US plans to create a prosperous Middle East, despite it bing home to thousands of Palestinian refugees. Under the Trump concept, Syria, unlike other countries, is not entitled to any compensation for refugees and the occupied Golan Heights. The problem for Russia is not that Damascus could potentially embrace the US plan if the deal benefits Syria. Rather, the very attempt to exclude Syria from negotiations on Palestine could further exacerbate the rift between Damascus and the West and put a strain on talks for a Syrian settlement.

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