Moscow Tries to Tap Mideast Ties for Peace

Now that the bottleneck in the Mideast peace process over the West Bank town of Hebron has been unclogged, there are hopes that the momentum will restart other tracks on the road to regional dtente. That includes parts of the peace process that were frozen last year: Israeli-Syrian talks and multilateral negotiations to tackle issues such as arms control and economic cooperation.

And at the back of the peacemaking pack, Russia is waving its hand, offering up its services and trying to work its way back to the negotiating table. Russia is officially a cosponsor of the peace talks, though its role has of late been utterly marginal. But it is increasingly breaking away from the US agenda and looking to carve out a role of its own, hoping to play mediator in places where America's influence is tempered by its pro-Israeli image.

Suggestions that anyone but the US, Israel's greatest ally, broker sensitive negotiations might be assumed to put the Jewish state on edge, especially because Russia's outlook is decidedly pro-Arab. But Israeli foreign ministry sources say they see Russia as a possible conduit to Iran and Iraq, states with which the United States no longer has ties.

"Moscow uses its possibilities in Teheran and Baghdad to normalize relations between these states and Israel," says Alexander Bovin, the Russian ambassador to Israel.

Though there are no signs of such rapprochement, the prospect isn't ruled out in an era when sworn enemies have begun to reconcile.

Russia is "getting more considerable and taking into account a whole spectrum of its national interests," Mr. Bovin says. It is "trying to be an objective and free-of-preconception cosponsor."

Israeli and American officials agree Russia can play a constructive role. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have accepted Moscow's invitations to visit the Kremlin in the next several months. And Russia plans to revive multilateral talks - inaugurated in Moscow - which broke off when peacemaking came to a halt with a string of Arab suicide bombings in Israel almost a year ago.

Russia would like even more involvement. Last fall, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov passed calming messages between Israel and Syria, who were lofting rhetorical bombs at each other. But with the Clinton administration hoping it can use the Hebron success to resume Syrian-Israeli talks, Russia won't likely find the players turning to Moscow for assistance.

Arab states no longer defer to Russia the way they did when the Soviet Union was their cold-war patron state. With no Russian money to be had, Arab states pay lip service to the notion of a balance of power, but they recognize the monolithic status of the US. That equation frustrates Russia, whose history in the region reaches back to the Orthodox churches its czars built here for its pilgrims. Though the Soviet Union cast its United Nations vote in favor of the creation of Israel in 1948, the cold war pitted the USSR against Israel over Soviet support to Arab regimes and its refusal to allow Jews to immigrate here.

To be sure, Israeli enthusiasm for Russian foreign policy is hindered by the fact that even if the former superpower no longer dispenses weaponry on credit to states hostile to Israel, it still has plenty of arms for sale to them. Middle East analysts quip that Russia's outlook has merely gone from ideological to mercantile.

"Russia sells weapons first of all proceeding from its commercial interests," says Bovin.

Though US officials brush off Russian influence because of its financial limitations, the Russians seem concerned about being pushed to the sidelines. "It seems that the Americans would prefer to put their feet on all tables of negotiations," Bovin quips.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has a theory about too many nations wanting to get a piece of the peacemaking.

"It comes to a point where it is Palestinians and Israelis who have to deliver," Mr. Erekat says.

But "many of the foreigners who come to the region want to be Lawrence of Arabia, or Lawrence of Gaza, anyway."

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