Quartet host Russia: A new broker for Israel peace?

Amid a US-Israel flap, some see an opportunity for Middle East Quartet host Russia to become a bigger player in Israel peace talks. Moscow has strong ties with both Israelis and Palestinians.

By , Correspondent

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    Quartet host Russia: From left, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton pose for a photo after the news conference in Moscow, Russia, Friday.
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As the Middle East Quartet met in Moscow today amid high US-Israel tensions, some see an opportunity for host Russia to return as a key player in Israel peace talks with the Palestinians.
 

Unlike the cold war past, when the Soviet Union backed the Arabs and the US supported Israel, experts say that Moscow and Washington appear to be increasingly on the same page about the way forward in managing the long-running conflict, and the present situation offers a fresh opportunity to work together toward a common goal.

Russia, which has forged good relations with Israel in the post-Soviet period, still maintains strong links with the Palestinians, which might prove useful in nudging them toward the bargaining table.

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"Israel has no fear that its main friend, the US, will ever abandon it, but the Palestinians worry very much about being isolated," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The Palestinians need to feel that someone is in their corner, and Russia is well-positioned to play that role."

After Friday's meeting, top diplomats of the Quartet – including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and special representative Tony Blair – condemned Israel's "unilateral" construction plans in a joint statement.

They also called for negotiations that would end Israel's occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war and result, within 2 years, "in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors."

Israel's announcement last week of 1,600 new housing units threw a wrench in Vice President Joe Biden's trip and has touched off what some have said is the worst crisis in decades between the allies.

'Plenty of room for cooperation' with US

Mr. Kremeniuk says that Moscow has noted that the Obama administration appears to be edging away from Bush-era uncritical support for Israel, toward a view that sees US interests better served by a Middle East settlement that will satisfy Palestinian aspirations, even if it involves twisting Israel's arm more than in the past.

For post-Soviet Russia, staking out political ground between Israel and the Islamic world is crucial, due to Moscow's important trading links with Iran and many Arab countries, and also due to Russia's 20 per cent Muslim minority.

"Russia never will back the Israeli radical right, because we cannot afford to alienate the Muslim world," says Alexei Malshenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "We are doomed to occupy a centrist position. But we will work with our partners in the Quartet. The Soviet Union, and its policies, are in the distant past."

In the past Russia has tried to establish a separate position from the US, notably in 2006 when then President Vladimir Putin infuriated Israel by initiating a dialog with the radical Palestinian faction Hamas, but Russian officials say the Kremlin is now only hoping for a supportive back-seat role in any upcoming negotiations.

"Russia is a loyal member of the quartet, and we're not going to take any initiatives that haven't been agreed upon," says Mikhail Margelov, head of the foreign affairs commission of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

But, he adds, "it's high time for Russia and the US to think about positive things they can do together in the Middle East. This is not an area that is the 'back yard' of either country, so our basic interests do not clash as they would if the subject were Ukraine or, say, Venezuela. We have plenty of grounds for cooperation."

Netanyahu offers Clinton 'confidence-building measures'

Mrs. Clinton told journalists in Moscow that she'd talked Thursday night with Israel prime minister Netanyahu about his offer of "confidence-building measures" leading to renewed peace talks. She said the conversation was "very useful and productive," but added that "we don't believe unilateral action by any parties are helpful. We've made this clear."

Clinton said she expects to see Netanyahu in Washington next week. "We are all committed to the launching of proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians," she added.

Russian reconciliation with Jewish community, Israel

Russia has moved far toward reconciling with Israel since Soviet days, when Jewish emigration was restricted and Moscow armed Israel's Arab foes. Today's Russia trades with and even sells arms to Israel, while a thriving Russian Jewish community includes growing numbers of former emigrants who have returned to Russia after living in Israel.

"Russia today is far from the worst place for Jews to live," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow. "There is still xenophobia here, yes, but compared with the Soviet Union things have really improved."

Some Russians say the large Russian-speaking community in Israel also provides some "soft power" leverage, or at least make Russia seem a credible and acceptable mediator in the region.

"There are 15 deputies of the Knesset [Israeli parliament] and 4 members of the current government cabinet who hail from the Russian-speaking community in Israel," says Mr. Margelov. "It's also true on the other side, that many Palestinians have been educated in Russian universities and speak Russian. We are well-placed to play a role here."

Russia ready to support strong US leadership – but skeptical

Some Russian experts say they doubt that, despite the current spat between Israel and the Obama administration, the US will offer any strong new leadership on the Middle East imbroglio.

"The US appears, to us, to be hostage to its long-term relationship with Israel, and doesn't seem capable of taking a clear new direction," says Alexei Pushkov, head of the Institute of Contemporary International Problems, a think tank that advises the Russian Foreign Ministry. "If the US would take the lead, Russia certainly seems to be ready to lend strong support. But many of us suspect that this Quartet meeting is just the same old diplomatic dance, leading nowhere."

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