MOSCOW — 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.
“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 today’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 U.S.
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.