Russian President Vladimir Putin and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas make a statement following their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia, May 11, 2017. (photo by REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov)

Is Moscow a likely matchmaker between Israelis, Palestinians?

Author: Dmitry Maryasis
Posted May 22, 2017

Russia is hoping its persistence pays off in the Middle East as it seeks to broker talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin used the occasion of Russia’s Victory Day, May 9, to once again exchange views on key Middle East issues: Syrian civil war resolution, Iranian politics in the region and Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution.

The next day, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrived at the Russian southern resort town of Sochi to have a personal meeting with Putin. One of the official reasons for the visit was the opening ceremony of the Bethlehem sports and cultural center that had been built by Russians. The two leaders together watched the live broadcast of the event.

Contentwise, though, most of the meeting was dedicated to Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution, with two major issues on the table: direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in Moscow under the auspices of the Russian government, and the new Israeli law that enables construction of new settlements in the West Bank.

Interestingly, Abbas expressed his readiness for such negotiations, praising Russia’s firm stand on the two-state solution.

There’s also a wider context of Russia’s contacts with the Israelis and Palestinians, which occurred almost simultaneously. Both contacts could be considered follow-ups to a statement issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs a month ago. On March 31, the Israeli government — for the first time in 20 years — approved plans for a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The EU and United Nations immediately condemned this decision. The United States was also quick to react, but said it “understands” the Israeli Cabinet decision. Russia kept silent to let it all settle, waiting until April 6 to issue an official reaction.

Moscow’s statement condemned Israel’s settlement plans, but also said both parties have a claim to Jerusalem, which was hailed by the Israeli press as a positive shift. Moscow’s statement expresses concern that the situation on the ground has been deteriorating, noting that the absence of direct talks has resulted in the two sides undertaking unilateral actions.

This basically means two things. First, Russia is not happy with the Israeli government’s decision to build in the West Bank, but expressed its opinion more diplomatically than did the EU and UN. Second, for a long time Russia has urged Israelis and Palestinians to start direct talks under the Kremlin’s auspices. The statement is a way to remind the two parties that this initiative is still available.

The most interesting message Moscow sends to both Israelis and Palestinians is that East Jerusalem must be the capital of an independent Palestinian state. Remarkably, previous numerous statements on the issue from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not specify the status of the western part of the city.

Russia, as most countries, considers Tel Aviv the present-day capital of Israel. This particular document, however, proclaims that West Jerusalem should become the capital of Israel. It should be noted that this isn’t a major shift toward a more pro-Israeli position in the conflict, since according to Israeli law only the united Jerusalem is seen by its citizens as the capital of their state. But it’s still an interesting move that signals that Russian decision-makers have studied the present-day state of affairs in the Palestinian-Israeli track thoroughly and made some reassessments. There is also a strong possibility that this change is one of the results of Netanyahu’s efforts to establish close relations with Putin.

Based on current developments and the evolution of Russian thinking on the issue, we can probably expect Russia to take further steps in this direction, to enhance its stand as an effective mediator in the conflict resolution process. There’s a view in Moscow that the new US leadership does not have a positive program in this field, despite US claims of the opposite. Moscow also understands that to be a key external player in the Middle East, it needs to concentrate not just on Syria, but must also have a say in all major regional processes.

With this in mind, we can assume that both Israeli and Palestinian leadership see Moscow’s proposals as a platform for future Russian action toward conflict resolution. Both sides take Russia’s proposals, as well as the signals the statements were meant to send, quite seriously, as neither hurried to express their claims — though they both surely have something to say.

It appears the real preparatory work has already started to establish a comfortable framework for future direct talks in Moscow. And this kind of work is to be done with the least possible amount of attention from outsiders. If Moscow succeeds in at least igniting a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, together with a similar settlement process in Syria, it will be a clear sign that Russia is able to play a pivotal role in the region.

Dmitry Maryasis

Dmitry Maryasis, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and at Skolkovo Business School’s Institute for Emerging Markets Studies. He also serves as a director general of the Russia-Israel Business Council. Maryasis, an expert in the economics and politics of contemporary Israel, has authored more than 50 research papers and the book “Innovation Economy Building Experience: The Case of Israel” (Moscow, 2015).

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