Russia eyes greater Mideast role


MOSCOW (JTA) – A series of Russian trial balloons floated in the past two months to coax Israel and the United States into an Annapolis reprise conference here in June appear to have drifted astray.

Flush with oil cash and eyeing the American diplomatic morass in the Middle East, Russia has sought to assert itself further as a member of the Quartet charged with monitoring the peace process.

But Russia’s overtures for a new Mideast peace summit have resulted in little more than a duet between Russia and the Palestinian Authority. Israel has shrugged off the idea of a conference, and Mideast experts say the United States would have little, if any, interest in Moscow-based talks that could undercut its role as the central mediator in the conflict.

“It is hard for the Israelis to say no to the United States,” said Evgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Middle East Institute in Moscow. “With Russia, it is no problem at all to say no.”

While the prospects for a June conference in Moscow look dim, observers say Russia may have a key role to play going forward as a more natural fit to open lines of dialogue with Arab states.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made the rounds in Moscow last week, sounding a confident and hopeful note even as 17 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip the day his plane touched down in Russia.

“We have great hopes the conference will move the peace process forward between Palestine and Israel, and that it will lay the grounds for the broader peace process in the entire Middle East, including Syria and Lebanon,” Abbas told students at the Moscow Institute for Foreign Relations, where he received an honorary degree.

Abbas met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then with President Vladimir Putin at his cottage outside Moscow last Friday, expressing confidence after each visit that the next milepost on the road to Middle East was planted in Moscow.

Then Abbas went to Washington this week to meet with President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Shortly after Abbas left Russia, several media outlets downplayed his visit. A commentator for the state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency called the results of the Abbas visit unimpressive and said the conference likely would be postponed.

Israel has not received any official invitation to a summit in Moscow and would have to review the agenda for such a conference before it could decide to attend, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Moscow told JTA.

“It’s no secret that Israel prefers bilateral negotiations,” the spokesman said, adding a Moscow conference could be good or bad for Israel, depending on the discussions.

The possibility of a Moscow conference arose in the run-up to talks held last November in Annapolis, Md., as the United States worked to bring Syria on board. In an effort to sweeten the pot, Moscow held out the option of a second conference in Russia that could include the Golan Heights on the agenda.

Syria, which has demanded a discussion on the Golan as a requirement for its participation, sent a deputy foreign minister to Annapolis.

Lavrov on a tour of the Middle East last month visited Syria, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to stump for the conference. He criticized settlements in the West Bank and called the Israeli government’s blockade of the Gaza Strip “unacceptable.”

Since the Annapolis talks, Russia largely has been left in the dark on the state of negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, the Russian daily Kommersant reported. The paper noted the Russian administration’s frustration that it has funneled more than $10 million in aid to the Palestinians and still has little say in the peace process.

Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of a newsletter on Syria, said the initial suggestion of a conference and subsequent lobbying effort provided Moscow with a chance to grab headlines and “flirt” with the idea.

Russia brings a unique set of connections and qualifications to the negotiating table, especially with Arab states, Landis said, based on its willingness to engage the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah or conduct bilateral talks with Syria.

But he said Russia has a long way to go before it can act as a necessary counter-balance to U.S. influence in the region, despite America’s baggage with the Iraq war, Iranian brinksmanship and its acknowledgment of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups.

“They want to show that they are not in the U.S. camp, that they are neutral or on the side of the Arabs,” Landis said. “In that sense, Russia is making some hay of this. It’s in Russia’s interest to float this balloon more than it is to actually have the conference.”

By placing its toe in the water this year, Russia has signaled that it sees an opening that hasn’t existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For decades the Soviet Union, hoping to spread its ideological and economic interests, was mired in the wrong fights in the Middle East, backing the wrong leader against the superior force of Israel.

“It all turned out badly for the Soviet Union,” Landis said.

After the collapse, there was little room for Russia at the negotiating table. Although Moscow kept open avenues with Arab states, those states were increasingly wary of Russia’s ability to help them.

Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that with a resurgent Russia and an increasingly bogged-down United States, the dynamic may change over the next five to 10 years.

“It’s kind of oil-based, crony capitalist, semi-authoritarian political system actually meshes quite nicely with those in the Arab world,” Cook said. “After 50 years of American dominance, the Arabs may find it convenient, although nobody thinks that anyone is going to supplant the United States. But the Arabs may find it convenient to play Moscow off of Washington.”

In the short term, Cook said, Russia is looking for headlines and a further justification of its aid investment in the Palestinian territories. But in the years to come, Moscow may be looking for more.

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