Written by Zvi Magen
INSS Insight No. 159
Abu Mazen visited Russia from January 26 to January 28, 2010, as part of a round of meetings that included visits to Germany and Britain (his previous visit to Russia took place in April 2008). During the visit Abu Mazen met with President Medvedev and other officials (Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce Primakov, Chairman of the Russian Central Bureau of Statistics Stepashin, the Patriarch of the Russian Church Kirill, the chief of Russia's Council of Muftis Ravil Gainutdin, and the mufti of Kazan, Gosman Khazrat Iskhakov.
The Russians said that the purpose of the visit was to discuss renewing the peace process in the Middle East, and thus the meeting between Medvedev and Abu Mazen was focused on this. Abu Mazen updated President Medvedev about the situation with Israel and his contacts with the Americans, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians. Abu Mazen's other meetings were devoted to economic cooperation (constructing a power station, exports of agricultural produce to Russia, expanding direct Russian tourism to the PA) and humanitarian assistance.
During the visit a number of Russian messages emerged:
On various occasions during the visit the Russians said they will invest great effort in renewing the negotiations at the earliest possible juncture. They believe that the talks cannot be advanced by means of a single mediator, and that a collective effort, with wide international involvement, is required. They believe that other tracks should be combined with the Israeli-Palestinian track such as the Syrian-Lebanese track. According to reports from Russian commentators, consideration is being given to the future inclusion of Iran and Turkey.
Terms for renewing the talks within the proposed format include: unification of the Palestinian camp; abstention from preconditions regarding results of the talks; genuine efforts to tackle terror; and basing the talks on understandings achieved in the past (such as the Roadmap, Security Council resolutions, and the Arab initiative). The demand "for a complete halt to settlement activity," including in East Jerusalem, was also mentioned.
Israel responded positively to Abu Mazen's visit, and Russia apparently expects to discuss these issues during the visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu, if it takes place. Indeed, following several months of tension (expulsion of the diplomat and restrictions on Nativ activity), relations between Israel and Russia have warmed considerably. High ranking Israeli officials have visited Russia frequently (this will be Netanyahu's second visit since September 2009). There have also been eight visits by Russian officials since September 2009, and there has been an increase in reciprocal activity (a strategic cooperation committee; resumption, after a prolonged hiatus, of the joint economic committee of the Business Council).
At the same time, increasingly dark clouds loom over Russia-Iran relations. Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russia is disappointed with the negative Iranian response to the international proposals regarding its nuclear program and that it "is losing its patience." Russia has reportedly been angered by an Iranian demand for compensation from Russia and Britain for their occupation of Iran during World War II; aggression by the Iranian navy towards Russian fishing boats in the Caspian Sea; and prohibition of Russian aircraft from passing through Iran's airspace en route to the Gulf. For its part, Iran has expressed frustration with the supply of controversial S-300 missiles to Libya rather than to Iran. However, Russia continues to stipulate that it attaches the utmost importance to its relations with Iran and opposes Tehran's international isolation.
How the US eyes these developments is particularly interesting, especially considering that the Middle East, other than the Iranian issue, did not feature in President Obama's State of the Union address. On the other hand, there is a consistent improvement in US-Russia relations and greater cooperation between Russia and NATO. It is unlikely that the recent developments and announcements would occur without any coordination with the United States, especially since US participation is expected. Therefore, it is possible the matter was coordinated with the United States, together with the Palestinians and Israel. This suggests that Russia may very well be seriously preparing to assume a more active role in Middle East affairs in general and the peace process in particular. This is likely acceptable to the United States and the other Quartet members.
Against the backdrop of these Russian-American dealings are the understandings likely reached by the two countries in a dialogue initiated by the Obama administration a few months ago. According to these assumed understandings, in return for Russian willingness to cooperate with the West on the Iranian issue, the United States will allow Russia an active role in the Middle East, along with concessions on the intercept missiles in Eastern Europe, concessions on the START treaties, recognition of Russia's special status in certain regions within the domain of the former Soviet Union, and Russia's involvement in NATO affairs.
Russia has been aiming to assume a more active role in the Middle East for some time and in particular vis-Ã -vis the "prestigious" issue of the peace process. Russia indeed has certain assets in this regard: given its positive ties with all elements in the Middle East including the problematic ones (Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizbollah), it has the potential to be an effective mediator. The format for negotiations proposed by Russia projects a coordinating phase between the potential participants in the process, galvanizing talks at the Moscow conference on the Middle East, basing the negotiations process on extensive participation by the international community, i.e., the Quartet, the possible inclusion of Hamas, and an attempt to add the Syrian-Lebanese track and possibly at a later stage Iran and Turkey as well. Even partial success of this endeavor would give Russia substantial political advantages on the regional and global levels.
Israel's role in this script seems somewhat unclear. If it agrees to it, it would find itself in a complex international environment that may not necessarily be supportive and would generate new pressure on it. Nevertheless, Russia's interest in the model requires suitable preparation on Jerusalem's part. Following the expected visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Russia, we will likely know whether this proposal will be made to Israel and how serious it is.