Middle East peace process: Will Russia succeed where US failed?

Shehab Al-Makahleh
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Since 2015, Russia has been expressing keenness to host talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Fatah and Hamas to disentangle the hitches hampering peace between Arabs and Israelis and foster reconciliation between the Palestinians factions. The first step that Russia is trying to achieve is reconciliation between Palestinians themselves.

This started on 21st of December 2018 when Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh Al Maliki visited Moscow and held talks with Russian officials regarding a conceivable compromise between Hamas and Fatah.

The second is to convene a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to prompt resumption of negotiations.

Russia back to the MENA

Russia has returned back to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through the gates of Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and through the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Forty two years has passed since Russia was forced by the US to pull out from the MENA. Moscow is at present trying to regain its former status.

President Vladimir Putin has strong aspirations to reposition his country as a regional power, if not a world power, starting from Syria, to Iran, Turkey and Libya. He finds his country involved in the Palestinian Israeli conflict where Moscow can play a pivotal role. The other aspect is that Russia tries to forge better relations with Arab states and to cement ties further with Israel.

On January 15, 2019 head of the Hamas political bureau will visit Moscow to hold talks with Russian officials about the latest developments on the Palestinian-Israeli predicament and the proposed reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Haniyeh’s visit is deemed an important Russian breakthrough for both Palestinian movements and a Russian recognition that both Fatah and Hamas are regarded as the sole major political actors.

Putin has strong aspirations to reposition his country as a regional power, if not a world power, starting from Syria, to Iran, Turkey and Libya

Shehab Al-Makahleh

Such an initiative by Moscow unveils that Russia has strong intentions to have the upper hand in the MENA, even if at the expense of the Americans, to improve its relations with Middle Easterners through brokering peace talks to revive the stalemating negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, replacing the West which have failed to be fair mediators since 1967 as some Russian politicians say.

Bilateral talks have increased between Russia and Israel on one hand and between Russia and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) recently to host the summit between Israelis and Palestinians in Moscow after the Palestinians have final reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah movements.

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High-ranking Israeli and Palestinian delegations visited Russia many times in the past two years. Al Maliki flew to Moscow for meetings and had talks with senior Russian officials. Israeli officials were security, military and political figures including Netanyahu.

From the onset, Israelis were not fervent to Russian initiative, but were bound to respond auspiciously to the scheme. Though Russia knows that it would succeed to resolve Palestinian internal dispute between Hamas and Fatah, there is scepticism about the second step which is to convene the summit between Palestinians and Israelis until each party softens standpoints to soothe Russian initiative.

Will Abbas and Netanyahu talk in Moscow?

It has been said that in the past Americans had failed to placate Israelis and Palestinians; would Russia succeed? Would this Russian bid be symbolic to restore Middle Easterners’ trust and confidence in Russian policies? Will Russians convene a summit that would be conducive to a utilitarian breakthrough between Palestinians and Israelis?

Russian diplomacy is trying to be in middle-of-the-road between all concerned parties. This is clear as Moscow is dealing with Hamas, with Fatah and with Israel in an attempt to forge a reconciliation agreement first between Fatah and Hamas to unify their stances when a summit is convened between Abbas and Netanyahu.

Thus, the Russian political approach is not limited to certain parties. In 2017, Moscow hosted former Fatah official Mohammad Dahlan and gave him the chance to clarify his concerns and perspectives via Russian media.

Moscow is undoubtedly making a cluster of regional breakthroughs, starting from preparation of the Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir’s trip to Syria onboard Russian airplane in December 2018, to hosting talks for Syrian opposition and the government and to setting up the visit of Haniyeh.

For Americans, Russia is no more the Soviet Union; however, for Russians, their country is both the old Soviet Union and the Russian Federation with all those sources of power that help Moscow enhance its political involvement in other countries to protect its national security.

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Since the outset of the Madrid Conference in November 1991, the negotiation process on the Palestinian/ Israeli track has remained in the hands of the Americans.

As soon as bilateral negotiations between the Arab and Israeli delegations started in Washington, it became apparent that the US had been able to marginalize the role of the Soviet Union to sponsor the Madrid Conference and the negotiating tracks that have emerged later on. Consequently, this was a loss for Palestinian and Arab negotiators as a whole.

In tandem with impasse in peace talks, there have always been Palestinian bets on a Russian role and on a European stand to give impetus to the negotiations and to redress their course.

However, all the bets have “gone with the wind” for a variety of reasons, including dynamism of Russian policy, the nature of these policies and the features of these determinants. Other reasons are related to the negotiation approach adopted by the Palestinian negotiating team in managing the negotiating process.

This is in addition to the profound changes in the Arab and regional attitudes toward Israel following the Oslo Agreement in September 1993, the reflection on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the status of the Palestinian cause on international and regional alliances.

Let bygones be bygones

Though the Palestinian-Israeli talks are now at state of clinical death and the way out of the deadlock can only be achieved through serious talks about the future and not the past. Most recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced before an international forum held in Moscow (February 19, 2018) that his country is "ready to play a role in sponsoring the negotiations to host peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis without preconditions”.

After Haniyeh’s visit to Moscow on 15th of January 2019, Washington would act towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, benefiting from the suitable political transformations in the MENA towards Israel to proceed with the Century Deal with more normalisation of ties and naturalisation of relations between Arabs and Israelis to speed up the process.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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