Russia angles for bigger role in Mideast

Israel's foreign minister will visit Moscow, as Putin tries to reassert influence.

In the maelstrom of diplomatic efforts to restart the Mideast peace process, it might have been easy to miss the "virtual summit" engineered by Russia.

No peace has been declared. The fighting hasn't stopped; nearly 300 people, mainly Palestinians, have been killed so far. Palestinians called for increased protests during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Monday. And the embattled Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is desperately fighting to form a new government that would head off early parliamentary elections.

But President Vladimir Putin is reasserting Russia's role in the peace process, in the vacuum left by the American failure so far to stem the carnage. Analysts say it is part of a broader campaign by Mr. Putin to elevate Russian influence globally - and to dispel a decade-long impression of post-cold-war weakness.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat visited the Kremlin on Friday, which yielded a surprise direct phone call to Mr. Barak.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is due to visit Moscow soon to "compare notes" with Putin.

The Russian initiative comes

at a time when both sides of the Middle East divide are running out of options. Barak's popularity is sagging, and Arafat is searching for political support for the renewal of the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising. For both leaders, Russia could prove to be a convenient new player.

For years, Russia's official role as "cosponsor" with the United States of the Arab-Israeli peace process received no more than lip service. Despite some grumblings in Washington about Russia's enhanced role, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright held a lengthy meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Vienna on Sunday.

Though the US has long been Israel's closest ally, as the sole remaining superpower, it also assumed the mantle of "honest broker" in the Mideast. But with the continuing violence, Russia - long a supporter of pro-Arab causes - is moving to fill the gap. "I don't say that Russia is the savior that comes with Excalibur to save the day," says Alexei Pushkov, a member of the Presidential Foreign Policy Council. "But there is a vacuum now.... Nobody is there, and violence is escalating."

"The Americans are irritated because [the Mideast peace process] was a success for several years, and all of a sudden it goes down, and the Russians are there," says Mr. Pushkov. "The US should understand: The Russians are only there because the Americans failed. It's not anti-American, but it's a comeback of active diplomacy."

Russia backs a Palestinian proposal to send 2,000 UN observers to the occupied territories, but says it is senseless to impose such a force if Israel continues to reject it.

Russia may be able to help, Pushkov says, but it is not moving to take over as chief mediator - and couldn't force either side to compromise on strategic differences, such as the status of Jerusalem, which scuppered American efforts.

Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials also say that the US is in no danger of being displaced by Moscow. But Russia's Mideast push is the latest in a string of moves - from Iraq, Kosovo, and North Korea - designed to bolster Russia's influence abroad.

"Putin is over this syndrome of post-Soviet weakness," Pushkov says. "It's a psychological comeback.... He wants Russia to have an influential foreign policy, as it used to have."

Still, some argue the significance of the "virtual [telephone] summit" - as a Moscow newspaper described it - is overblown. "It's very important symbolically, but I am afraid that all Russian foreign policy is a symbolic effort to re-exert itself - and to demonstrate the phones are working properly in the Kremlin," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.

"It may be pleasant to note that the Americans are out, and the Russians are in," he adds. "I don't see any results from this, especially since the Americans failed with all their resources."

Besides diplomatic focus, the US can offer billions in aid - as it has to Mideast peacemakers in the past - that the aid-absorbing Russia could never match.

Moscow has hardly played a role during a decade of US-led Mideast peacemaking, and is often at odds with Washington over Iraq and Iran. Russia was conspicuously absent from an emergency summit convened by President Clinton last month.

"So many years have been spent on the peace process," Putin said Friday, and "all this is now on the brink of catastrophe."

Israel has sought to downplay Moscow's initiative, making clear that the US position as peace mediator is not in jeopardy. But it moved quickly to say it would send Mr. Ben-Ami, whose trip has been delayed for several days because of domestic politics.

But with Barak trying desperately to save his fragile coalition, and protests expected to escalate because of the Muslim holy month, Russia's offer may be an unexpected lifeline.

Few doubt the importance of finding a way out. Barak made clear that the level of violence was unprecedented from the side of the Jewish state: "Never has an Israeli government used such great force against the Palestinians - rockets, tanks and returning fire when needed," he told Israel Radio on Sunday.

And Russians appear thrilled their leader is trying to help.

"Russia has awakened from a long diplomatic sleep," said the daily Izvestia. "More and more often, both Palestinians and Israelis appeal not to Washington, but to Moscow."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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