Russia / Mideast

Trump takes center stage in Abbas-Putin talks

Article Summary
While the Russian president expressed a desire to play a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he made it clear that Washington remains a key party in future talks.

Washington's role in the Middle East topped the agenda in Moscow during talks Feb. 12 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) had originally been due to meet with Putin in Sochi. However, following the crash of a Russian civilian aircraft that claimed 71 lives, the meeting had to take place in Moscow. Just a few minutes ahead of the meeting, US President Donald Trump phoned his Russian counterpart. The formal reason was to express condolences over the plane crash, but the two politicians also touched upon other topics, including the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process. Putin passed Trump’s best wishes to Abbas as the two leaders started the conversation. “Naturally, we talked about the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process. I would like to convey his best wishes,” the Russian leader said to Abbas. Later, Washington clarified that Trump had emphasized the need to start working out an “enduring peace agreement” between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The statement came amid the Palestinian’s active rejection of US mediation in the Middle East. Abbas did not come empty-handed, as he brought the proposals to set up a new settlement mechanism for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Should any international conference or any international event take place, we ask for the ultimate creation of a mechanism in which the United States would be part of a group of mediators rather than the sole intermediary,” the Palestinian leader told Putin.

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Al-Monitor asked Nabil Shaath, Abbas’ adviser on foreign affairs and international relations, whether he was surprised that the Abbas-Putin meeting included “greetings” from Trump. He said, “President Putin made it clear that Russia does not exclude the United States from the Middle East settlement process — we do not do it either. We are just unwilling to see the United States as the sole mediator.”

Shaath also said that Abbas spoke at length at the Kremlin talks on why the Palestinians felt ill at ease about US mediation in the conflict. The sides also discussed the Palestinian proposals to create a new settlement mechanism — a new peace formula for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Shaath noted that “the Moscow negotiations did not produce any agreements,” in fact the talks had not aimed to do so. Most importantly, Russia reaffirmed its commitment to the two-state solution one more time and voiced its eagerness to work with the Palestinian proposals.

The Palestinians seek to expand the ranks of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators, which came into existence in 2002. Currently, these mediators include Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, but over the past few years, the latter has not initiated a single step aimed at conflict resolution. The Palestinians believe that Washington opted for managing this process unilaterally.

The Palestinians propose a negotiation format similar to the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) that addressed the Iranian nuclear issue. This implies that the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus several other states are viewed as future mediators. The list of the additional countries is yet to be discussed. The Palestinians are considering Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa and some Arab states. Their main objective is to ensure that Washington’s voice is one of many, but not the only one. As the Palestinians believe, international deliberations may produce a new mechanism. Thus they perceive Russia, which maintains ties with all the regional stakeholders, as an ideal venue for the meeting.

Shaath expressed hope for the prompt start of such negotiations, saying that Moscow does not oppose it, but did not give any concrete promises at the bargaining table.

Both Russia and Palestine really need international support on the issue. On his way to Moscow, Abbas paid a visit to Brussels and many other world capitals to hold negotiations with their leaders, which would culminate in his Feb. 20 address to the UN Security Council. As sources close to Kommersant argued, the Russian president had provided Abbas with “much sound advice” on his future speech. Although Putin is not the only adviser here, the Palestinians hope that Russia will play a key role in the Middle East peace process.

However, Moscow understands that any conference or new mechanism will not be effective unless the two parties are back at the negotiating table. As early as last year, Moscow proposed hosting direct talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the Israelis turned down the offer. Moreover, they do not trust international formats, realizing that they have no allies but the Americans. At the same time, the United States is not ready to condone Israeli behavior.

In a recent interview with Israel Hayom, the US president voiced an opinion that neither Palestine nor Israel was looking to make peace. “We are going to see what goes on,” said Trump when asked about when the United States would unveil its much-heralded peace plan. The statement can be described as a bombshell, as the president used to deem only the Palestinians unready to embrace peace.

If the course of events were conditional upon Israeli actions, nothing would take place. As Putin mentioned in his conversation with Abbas, he had discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict with Netanyahu during his visit to Moscow two weeks earlier. Yet the negotiations resulted in neither Russia nor Israel touching upon the matter and instead focusing on the Syrian issue and Iran.

The Middle East peace process has been gradually returning to the world’s agenda one way or another. Although Russia supports the Palestinians, it will not overemphasize its importance in the process. Conflict resolution, if at all possible, requires joint efforts of the mediators. Despite Moscow considering the recent US steps toward the goal dangerous, it deems a dialogue with Washington necessary.

Putin demonstrated to the Palestinian side that the United States remains the key party to the Middle East peace process. It is no coincidence that Putin started his conversation with Abbas with “greetings from Trump.”

During his stay in Moscow, the leader of the PA also visited the Moscow Cathedral Mosque where he met Ravil Gainutdinov, the head of the Council of Muftis. He said that for Russian Muslims the route of pilgrimage includes stops at Al-Aqsa and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Abbas also reminded everyone of Russian support for the Palestinian stance on East Jerusalem. Preserving the special status of Jerusalem was also discussed at the meeting between Abbas and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Sergei Stepashin, the chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.

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Marianna Belenkaya writes on the Middle East for the Russian daily Kommersant. An Arab studies scholar with almost 20 years of experience covering the Middle East, she served in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press pool from 2000 to 2007 as a political commentator for RIA Novosti and later became the first editor of the RT Arabic (formerly Rusiya al-Yaum) website, until 2013. She has written for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Russian Profile Magazine and Al-Hayat and is now a regular contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center. On Twitter: @lavmir

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