Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 21

Russia’s continuing efforts to reinsert itself as a significant player in the Middle East peace process resumed last week during a three-day visit to Moscow by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. The Israeli leader, whose post is primarily symbolic, had traveled to Russia several times before, but was making his visit as president. His talks with Russian leaders came at an important juncture for the Middle East: amid continuing peace negotiations, during the run-up to Israel’s February 6 elections, and amid a lull in U.S. Middle East peace efforts owing to the change of the presidential administration in Washington.

Russia is playing an indirect role in the Israeli elections, thanks to the large number of Russians who have emigrated to Israel over the past decade. In all, immigrants from the former Soviet Union are said to account for about 1 million of Israel’s 6 million voters. Those predominantly Russian voters helped to elect Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister in 1996, and were then instrumental in his loss three years later to current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Both Barak and his current campaign opponent, Ariel Sharon, are competing hard for Russian votes in the upcoming election.

Indeed, following a ninety-minute meeting with Katsav on January 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed what he said was Moscow’s enduring concern for the fate of this immigrant population, and repeated earlier Russian suggestions that the presence of so many former Soviet citizens in Israel could ultimately form a “good connecting link, a bridge between our states.” Putin’s talk of Moscow’s continuing concern for former Soviet immigrants in Israel might have been interpreted as mildly threatening, given the Russian president’s very recent emphasis on the importance that Russian diplomacy should attach to protecting and cultivating Russia’s foreign diasporas (see yesterday’s Monitor). But what was probably more noteworthy about Putin’s statements was the degree to which they contrasted with the rhetoric out of Moscow during the Soviet period, when authorities hindered the efforts of Soviet Jews trying to emigrate to Israel and then labeled those who left as traitors to the motherland (Ha’aretz, January 24).

Moscow’s main goals during last week’s talks, however, were to boost Russia’s role in the Middle East peace process and to boost bilateral relations between Israel and Russia. It is unclear how much progress Putin and other Russian officials made on either of those fronts, though a press conference Putin and Katsav held following their talks was notable for its friendly atmosphere. Putin appeared to bypass the pro-Palestinian rhetoric which has so often characterized Moscow’s comments on the Middle East, and told Katsav that Russia would do its utmost to help achieve peace in the region. He also of bilateral relations between Israel and Russia as “improving famously.” Katsav answered in kind, telling Putin that Moscow can play a role in the region and that Russia’s good relations with the Arab world “can undoubtedly open up new possibilities for dialogue.” He also described Russia as a “great power” and said that “it has a major role in world affairs. This applies fully to the Middle East peace settlement.

There did appear to be some dissonance between Putin and Katsav on the issues of terrorism and Russia’s war in Chechnya. Some Russian officials suggested that, with regard to the battle against international terrorism, the two countries had much in common and that Israel might even have a few things to teach Russia. But Katsav appeared during his press conference with Putin to emphasize Israel’s desire that Moscow begin political negotiations with Chechen rebels. Putin, on the other hand, suggested that Moscow has no intention of engaging in negotiations because the Chechen rebels have no political leadership (unlike, he appeared to be implying, the Palestinians) with which Moscow can hold talks. The exchange between Putin and Katsav highlighted what has long been a major inconsistency of Russian foreign policy: Moscow’s claim to be battling international Islamic terrorists in Chechnya while simultaneously embracing Arab regimes which, in some cases, are themselves accused of sponsoring international terrorism (AP, AFP, Russian agencies, ORT, January 23; Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post, January 24).

That said, Katsav appeared (in his public remarks at least) to avoid comment on a host of related issues which have thus far helped to drive Israeli determination to shut Russia out of the Middle East peace negotiations. Those include support offered by Moscow last fall to proposals both for an international conference devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and for the dispatch of international observers to Palestinian territories. In addition, and more important in the long term, Russia has moved with increasing determination in recent months to improve relations with two of Israeli’s key Middle Eastern adversaries: Iran and Iraq. Indeed, Russian military cooperation with Iran had long been an important point of friction between Russia and Israel, and Israeli leaders cannot be happy about recent Russian initiatives both to sell more arms to Iran and to strengthen ties with Tehran more generally (see the Monitor, December 6, 2000; January 2).

Despite these underlying tensions, the Kremlin has apparently managed recently to score some points with the Israeli leadership. Katsav was said to be highly impressed, for example, with the efforts that Russian authorities put into creating a kosher kitchen for the Israeli delegation’s visit. While a seemingly small matter, the New York Times described the effort as a first for a Russian leader in some 1,000 years. It was also apparently a major and welcome departure from the Soviet period. More broadly, Katsav also expressed Israel’s gratitude for what he said has been Putin’s actions to fight anti-Semitism in Russia. Jewish leaders have reportedly credited Putin with helping to promote Jewish culture while stemming a tide of anti-Semitism which had risen in Russia during former President Boris Yeltsin’s last years in office (Russian agencies, January 23; New York Times New Service, January 25).