Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat kicked off a two-day visit to Russia yesterday with a proposal that Moscow play a greater role in the recently revived Middle East peace process. Arafat’s proposal, which included a call for Russia to participate in Palestinian-Israeli talks scheduled for next week in Washington, came during a Kremlin meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Moscow was a co-sponsor of the peace process launched in Madrid in 1991, but the Russian role has diminished greatly in the ensuing years. Yeltsin, however, was reportedly noncommittal with regard to Arafat’s invitation to join the Washington talks. The Russian leader said that Moscow might be interested, but wanted first to ascertain the views of the United States and Israel on the matter. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who also met yesterday with Arafat, similarly chose not to embrace Arafat’s proposal. The former foreign minister reportedly offered only a bland statement of Russia’s “unconditional support for Palestinian peace efforts” (UPI, AP, October 8).
Arafat did win a pledge from Yeltsin to name a permanent envoy who would be responsible for Middle Eastern affairs. According to Kremlin foreign affairs adviser Sergei Prikhodko, the duties of the permanent envoy will fall to one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers. Yesterday’s Russian-Palestinian talks also saw the signing of an agreement on trade and economic cooperation (Russian agencies, October 8).
As Arafat noted during his talks yesterday, Russia has long been a supporter of Palestinian aspirations, and Moscow has more generally allied itself with Israel’s Middle Eastern Arab rivals. The architect of that policy is current Prime Minister–and former Foreign Minister–Yevgeny Primakov, an Arabist by training and a man with long ties to the Arab regimes which allied themselves with Moscow during the Soviet period. Despite the Kremlin’s seeming reticence to jump into next week’s talks in Washington, Primakov has indeed consistently sought to raise Russia’s profile in the Middle East. He has attempted to trade on Moscow’s friendly relations with Iran, the Palestinians and Syria to do so. For just this reason Russia’s relations with Israel have been strained. Israeli leaders have objected, in particular, to alleged Russian military aid to Iran, and have foreclosed a greater role for Moscow in the Middle East process until that relationship is ended.
Arafat’s visit to Moscow follows last month’s talks among Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington and the subsequent apparent reanimation of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Arafat’s efforts to bring Moscow into the talks scheduled for next week in Washington–and back into the Middle East peace process more generally–are clearly aimed at counterbalancing what the Palestinian leader believes is Washington’s overly pro-Israeli stance. Moscow’s own viability as a sponsor of Palestinian aspirations has seemingly been diminished in recent months, however, by Russia’s ongoing political and economic crisis.
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