Will Moscow Steal the Show in Israel-Palestine Peace Process?

Resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue with Russian mediation has been vividly discussed in the recent weeks. Back in June, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on the sidelines of the Israeli-Palestinian peace summit in Paris that Moscow could become a new platform for contacts between Israel and Palestine. On September 8, 2016, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed in principle to hold such a meeting. The prospect of the resumption of direct dialogue between the parties was also raised during the telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 16.

According to the Valdai Discussion Club experts, the Russian initiative is well timed: the operation in Syria shows that Russia intends to maintain and enhance its role in the Middle East, and regional players recognize this role. Moreover, in addition to the traditionally close ties with the Palestinians Moscow has a new trump card: unprecedentedly close and trustful relations with Israel.

“The fact that the Russian initiative met a positive response from both sides – Israel and Palestine – means a lot. This suggests that the parties recognize the chance for Russia to mediate and to set the tone in these negotiations. So this initiative itself is a positive phenomenon and shows that our diplomacy in the Middle East is becoming more and more active,” says Tatiana Nosenko, senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies.

She is echoed by Zvi Magen, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University. “The Russian-Israeli relations are at a rather high level. I personally care about this issue, because I contributed to creating this reality” (in 1998-1999 Zvi Magen was Israeli ambassador to Russia).

Russia is not the only country, which recently came forward with the initiative for resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Mediation proposals were also made by the United States, which considers itself the main driving force of the Middle East peace process, and France, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Perhaps the same can happen with the Russian initiative, experts warn.

It should not be viewed solely in the context of Russia-Israel-Palestine relations, Magen said. “We are not talking about whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Russia because Israelis are on good terms with that country. This is a game against other players in this field. The United States and Europe would also like to be part of this process in one way or another, and they have influence on some Israeli politicians. They cannot be ignored.”

Washington’s reaction to the Russian initiative looked restrained. “We need to make sure that any face-to-face talks have the right climate in which to succeed in,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner, adding that the United States is in contact with Israel, with the Palestinians and with Russia on this issue.

Meanwhile, speaking on condition of anonymity, Western diplomats are more candid: “This is a stupid idea, it causes suspicions and was in the first place designed to prevent any breakthrough in the continuing stalemate in relations between the parties”, an unnamed New York-based Western diplomat told Israeli newspaper nrg Maariv.

In addition to the external obstacles on the way to Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ meeting in Moscow, there is an even more important challenge. It seems that neither Israel nor Palestine is interested in a breakthrough agreement.

“There is a problem with both Israelis and Palestinians,” says Zvi Magen. “There are doubts about their willingness and readiness to engage in this process. Yes, they may agree to a meeting, but that does not change, for example, the conditions, which will be placed time and again, nor does it prevent the parties from the use of other levers. There is no specific interest in the outcome of this process. Of course, we cannot exclude the possibility that the leaders of the two conflicting parties will agree to hold talks and meet the proposals from the Russian leadership. But whether these will have any result and whether all the parties even begin these negotiations is a very big question.”

Israel is ruled by a government, which is regarded by many observers as the most right-wing one in the country’s history. “As we know, construction in the Jewish settlements on the occupied territories continues,” Nosenko said. “As before, Israel does not go to any reduction on this issue and does not take any measures that would contain this construction. And Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to consolidate his government, that is, to earn points among the right forces, which are now very popular in Israeli society (the views of the nationalist settler-type are characteristic to the majority of Israelis).”

Terrorist attacks by Palestinians, in particular, the “knife intifada” only contribute to the consolidation of the right-wing forces’ position. “Israelis know that any attempts to destabilize the situation inside Israel lead to nothing and they feel secure,” Nosenko said.

As for the Palestinians, they also have little reason to compromise with Israel. First of all, there is an unclear issue with representation inside the country and on the international arena. Since 2007, the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist movement Hamas seized power, is beyond control of the Fatah party, which controls the territories on the West Bank. Meanwhile, the leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, is in his eighties and it is clear that Palestinians need to think about changing their leader, but so far there is no agreement on his successor.

In addition, Hamas threatens the positions of Fatah in the West Bank: the leadership of the ruling party fears to be defeated by Islamists at the municipal elections scheduled for early October. Therefore the elections are likely to be postponed, Nosenko believes.

“Whom does Mahmoud Abbas represent today? Can agreements that might be reached in Moscow be relied on? Would the new leader, succeeding Abbas, take these into account? This situation, in my view, worsens the prospects of negotiations proposed in the current environment,” Nosenko said.

Nevertheless, even participation in a protocol meeting would benefit both parties. Since the Palestinian leadership is doing its utmost to establish itself on the international stage and to show its abilities as a negotiator, it can use the opportunity to meet with the Israelis in Moscow just for this purpose. The Israeli leadership has the same motivation – to demonstrate its readiness for dialogue to external players, in its case, Washington first and foremost.

After he becomes a “lame duck” following the presidential election in November, Barack Obama, who once promised to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, will be able to take steps he could not do previously, Nosenko says. For instance, he could propose in the United Nations to adopt a new resolution on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which would supersede the Security Council Resolution 242 and become a new international regulatory act to resolve this conflict.

“It is a serious challenge and threat for the Israeli leadership,” Nosenko said. “Netanyahu is likely to take into account this possibility. In order to prevent this potential initiative from the American president, the Israeli prime minister can take measures that would indicate that the peace process could begin with negotiations with the Palestinians. And Moscow's initiative is a straw for him, which he can hold to develop this initiative to show the international community (and especially Americans), that there is some progress in the peace process, and measures are being taken to resolve this issue on the principles that were accepted.”

In other words, Netanyahu’s meeting with Abbas, if it will really take place, will be in some sense beneficial to all parties. For the last time, Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were held in 2010 with the mediation of the United States and were suspended after three weeks, because Israel refused to extend the moratorium on the construction in Jewish settlements. Success of the Russian initiative can confirm the status of Moscow as an important player in the Middle East and could be a signal for a variety of external forces about the negotiability of both Israelis and Palestinians. But whether it is a step toward a lasting peace – especially as various forecasts say that a new “intifada” could begin by the year end – is a big question.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.