Russia is moving to reassert its role in the Middle East – and in particular in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – as President Obama prepares to receive principal leaders in the conflict at the White House in the coming weeks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chaired a special meeting Monday of the United Nations Security Council that endorsed the idea of holding a Middle East peace conference in Moscow this year. In a presidential statement, the Security Council also called on all parties to honor past international accords – a clear nudge to a wavering Israeli government to embrace the concept of a two-state solution, in which a new Palestine would exist next to Israel.
Also on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Egypt with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, declaring that Israel wants to renew negotiations with the Palestinians "in the coming weeks." But he again refrained from endorsing a two-state solution.
The New York meeting, which drew the foreign ministers of France, Britain, and Japan, among others, comes as Mr. Obama prepares to receive the new Israeli prime minister at the White House on May 18. Mr. Netanyahu will be followed soon thereafter by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
All eyes will be on those meetings – especially on Netanyahu's to see if he continues to omit public mention or endorsement of a two-state solution.
But as the rotating president of the Security Council, Russia sees an opportunity to insert the international community – and raise Russia's own profile – in the Middle East proceedings, experts in the region say.
"It's about showing Russia is a player," says Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington. With the crucial Washington meetings coming up, the international community "and in particular the Russians want to have a hand in that and to influence that," he says.
At a press conference following the Security Council meeting, Mr. Lavrov noted that the United States, in a Council statement delivered Monday by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, called for "integrating" the Arab peace initiative of 2005 into the peace process. The Arab peace initiative, which was not enthusiastically embraced by the Bush administration, calls for full Arab recognition of the state of Israel, in exchange for Israel accepting a Palestinian state over most of the West Bank and Gaza.
The presidential statement, Lavrov emphasized, calls on all parties to work forward from established principles and signed accords "and not to start from Square 1" – a signal to Israel to end its ambiguity about a two-state solution.
Lavrov chaired the New York meeting on the same day that Moscow announced that Obama will visit Moscow on July 6-8 for a summit with President Dmitry Medvedev. That coincidence only underscores how recent steps by Moscow are as much about establishing a new leadership role in international diplomacy as they are about the Middle East peace process, some regional analysts say.
"What they are doing here is taking advantage of their one-month presidency of the UN Security Council," says Richard Murphy, an independent international consultant and former US ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Russia is also more interested in establishing a working relationship with the US as part of its international role, Mr. Murphy says, and less drawn to antagonizing the US.
The former Soviet Union's strident support of Palestinian rights in the 1970s and '80s "was as much about its opposition [to the US] as it was fondness for the Palestinian cause," he says. But now, working with the US and playing a constructive leadership role on the Security Council is a bigger part of establishing a new global leadership role, he adds.
"There was a time when the Russians had a much better relationship with the Palestinians than we had, when they cultivated the Palestinian leadership as they did the Syrians," Murphy says. "But that role has blurred with the end of the cold war, and one gets the sense they are still finding their way in terms of the role they can play."