Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 61

Russia appears to be among the countries left disappointed yesterday by an Israeli government decision that effectively ensured that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not attend the two-day Arab summit. The summit begins today in Beirut. Although Moscow’s reactions to Arafat’s absence were not immediately available, reports out of Russia made it clear that Russian diplomats–including the Kremlin’s special representative to the Middle East–were engaged in intensive negotiations yesterday aimed at ensuring the Palestinian leader’s attendance. Russia reportedly conveyed the same message during a telephone conversation between Arafat and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held on March 25. According to the Interfax news agency, Ivanov declared then that Arafat’s presence at the summit “would serve to create a more favorable atmosphere for stabilizing the situation in the region.”

Russia’s diplomatic exertions yesterday reflected its continuing hopes of establishing a meaningful role for itself in the international effort to bring peace to the Middle East. Despite being a cosponsor with the United States of the Oslo peace process, post-Soviet Russia saw its influence in the region dwindle throughout the 1990s. Under President Vladimir Putin, however, Russia has moved increasingly to moderate its previous support for the Palestinians. By adopting a more even-handed approach and simultaneously moving to improve ties with Israel, Russia has sought to carve out a spot for itself along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations in the current diplomatic efforts to end the violence in the region. Russia’s decision to recast its approach to the Middle East has been evident in its frequent calls for both the Israelis and the Palestinians to do exactly what Washington has been urging–to adopt recommendations contained in the so-called Tenet and Mitchell plans. If this modified Russian approach to the Middle East has helped ease some potential tensions with Washington, it is unclear whether it has added any weight to Russia’s diplomatic presence in the region.

A written greeting from Putin to Arab summit leaders appears to continue this more measured Russian approach. But it simultaneously contains elements that might not be seen as fully satisfactory by the Israeli or the U.S. governments. The Putin greeting, for example, declares that peace cannot be brought to the region by the use of force. It also emphasizes Russian support for the principle of “land for peace,” and says that “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East is possible only through an end to the occupation of Arab land, the realization of national rights for the Palestinian people, including the right to self-determination and the creation of an independent government, and also the guaranteeing of equal and reliable security for all states and peoples in the region–both Arab and Israeli.”

If that last sentence suggests a Russian tilt toward the Palestinians and against the Israelis, a section of Putin’s greeting that addresses the issue of Iraq contains a few passages that may rub Washington the wrong way. Putin identifies Iraq as a second major “sore spot” for the Arab world, and underscores Russia’s opposition to any use of force to resolve the crisis that surrounds Baghdad. He says directly that the world has not yet exhausted possible diplomatic solutions to the Iraq crisis, and urges the Arab leaders meeting this week to think carefully on ways to bring Iraq out of its diplomatic isolation. Putin appears to make no direct mention of the United States in this section of his greeting, but his remarks seem obviously to be aimed at the military threats that the Bush administration has leveled against Iraq (, Interfax, March 26).

Putin’s remarks come, moreover, amid reports that Russia and the United States remain divided on issues related to the recasting of UN sanctions on Iraq. That issue is likely to assume increasing importance in the weeks to come. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf arrived in Moscow yesterday for several days of talks with Russian diplomats aimed at resolving differences between the two countries on this contentious issue. The Bush administration has been pushing a so-called “smart sanctions” plan–one that would loosen restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into Iraq while simultaneously tightening controls on the entry of defense-related and dual-use items. The two countries would like to have an agreement in place by the time that Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush meet for summit talks on May 23-26. The summit date comes only a few days before the UN Security Council is to renew the UN’s existing “oil-for-food” humanitarian aid program for Iraq, and the Bush administration would like to ensure that a new sanctions plan has been agreed on by that deadline (Reuters, Interfax, March 26).

Meanwhile, Moscow appears this week to have staked out a position on another set of issues related to Middle East peace that are also likely to set it at odds with the United States and Israel. On March 25, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, discounted claims that Iran is now engaged in a sort of alliance with the Palestinians against Israel. Intelligence officials from both the United States and Israel have recently alleged that Yasser Arafat is receiving shipments of heavy weapons and other aid in order to bolster the effectiveness of Palestinian groups waging guerilla war against Israel. This partnership, moreover, is said to have been consummated during a clandestine meeting that took place in Moscow last May between Arafat and Iranian government officials. But Lavrov denied the claims, telling reporters that he has not “seen any evidence to support those allegations.” The Russian envoy’s remarks underscored anew the extent to which Russia’s friendly ties to Iran remain a serious irritant in its relations with both the United States and Israel. Tensions in this area could grow more serious in the months ahead, moreover, if the violence in Israel should worsen or if the United States should move against Tehran as part of its broader assault on what the Bush administration has called the “axis of evil” (AP, March 26).