The Russian-American breakthrough that has averted an attack on Syria for using chemical weapons has given some in the Middle East hope that such cooperation can be helpful in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While this week marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, few are suggesting that the current US-Russian cooperation is anything akin to the Cold War. But the presence of a second power, albeit, much less powerful than America, does provide possibilities for shaking up a unipolar world, especially in the volatile Middle East.
Russia is no stranger to the Middle East conflict. There are perhaps more Arabic-speaking diplomats and experts in Russia than in any other major world power. Russian diplomacy has even added to its arsenal the Arabic service of Russia Today, an Arabic language satellite station that has become a necessary ingredient for any country interested in having a say in the Middle East.
The involvement of Russia was a feature of the now nearly defunct Quartet, which also included the European Union and the United Nations as well as the United States. The Quartet was eclipsed in the past year when Washington decided to take on the Arab-Israeli conflict alone. US Secretary of State John Kerry has made six trips to Palestine and Israel this year to produce the restart of the talks and, thus, secure America’s further hegemony on this decades-old conflict. But the current peace talks scheduled for nine months seem to be going nowhere and the Americans have not even succeeded in having their own peace envoy, Martin Indyk, attend the negotiations due to Israeli objections.
Renewed Russian involvement in the peace talks is unlikely to make a huge change. While Russia will bring with it a commitment to agreed-upon principles of self-determination and the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” it doesn’t have the kind of financial or political power of the United States.
While Russia’s involvement in the Palestinian conflict will boost its relations with Syria and Iran, it will also have a domestic dimension. The Russian Federation has somewhere between 15-20 million Muslims and was involved in a bitter conflict in Chechnya. Russia has taken a strong position against militant Islam, which it considers to be an inspiration and even a direct source of its domestic terrorism.
Russia has aligned itself more with moderate non-Arab Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, rather than the conservative Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. During the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a conscious effort to refer to the most populated Islamic country, a clear reference to Indonesia rather than Saudi Arabia. Russians are said to have suggested that they also be included as a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference because of their large Muslim population.
A Russian role in the Middle East conflict is also not necessarily in favor of Palestinians. A major element in the Israeli population today are the more than 1 million Russian Jews, almost all of whom speak Russian and closely follow Russian politics and culture. Most Russian Jews, however, support far-right parties like Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman. Liberman, out of government while he fights corruption charges, is known for his anti-Arab and anti-peace position.
Palestinian officials have maintained proper and friendly relations with Moscow. Many Palestinians are Russian speakers and have studied in Russia. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas graduated from a Moscow university and is rather comfortable with Russia and its politics. The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet era has been reflected in a spike in Russian Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Russian cultural centers and religious institutions are today dotting the Palestinian territories in cities such as Bethlehem and Jericho.
Overall, a role for Russia in the Arab-Israeli conflict is seen as a plus for Palestinians who are yearning for any side that can weaken the Israeli political hold on US politics and its manifestations in the region. Although Russians can influence Palestinian positions, it will not be able to deliver for Palestine the same way it is promising to deliver for Syria. And while the US might tolerate shared influence on a country like Syria, it will be much more defensive about any external power trying to enter what it considers its sole field of influence in the region.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab