Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 77

In a move which–if accurately reported–would appear to signal a sharp change in Moscow’s Middle Eastern policy, a Russian diplomat was quoted yesterday as saying that Moscow will support an independent Palestinian state whenever the Palestinians choose to declare it. According to the Associated Press, Russia’s ambassador to Egypt told the Egyptian Middle East News Agency that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made the promise of support in a letter to the head of the Arab League. The ambassador quoted Ivanov as saying in that letter that “Russia will strongly support the declaration of a Palestinian state at any time the Palestinian Authority chooses” (AP, April 20).

Although post-Soviet Russia has generally supported the Palestinians, the Russian Foreign Ministry reportedly urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on April 5 to forego plans to declare a Palestinian state on May 4. During a visit to Moscow by Arafat, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov was quoted as telling the Palestinian leader that he should “put off the proclamation of the state so as to give a new chance for [peace] talks.” Arafat was visiting Moscow as part of a longer tour of international capitals during which he consulted with world leaders over his plans to declare a Palestinian state (Russian and international agencies, April 5-6; see the Monitor, April 7).

The advice Ivanov offered Arafat during Arafat’s Moscow visit paralleled recommendations made to the Palestinian leader in other world capitals. In Moscow, however, the advice to forego declaring a Palestinian state was perceived by some as further evidence of a recent warming in relations between Russia and Israel. In late March Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid an official visit to Moscow, during which he and Russian officials proclaimed their satisfaction with bilateral relations between their two countries. Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who had accompanied Netanyahu on that March visit, returned to the Russian capital on April 11, and the message was much the same. Israeli newspapers, meanwhile, have in recent weeks been filled with speculation that the government’s overtures to Moscow are politically motivated and intended in large part to help Netanyahu garner the votes of Israeli’s large Russian immigrant population in Israel’s May 17 election.

It was perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that Syrian President Hafez Assad announced–also on April 11–that he was postponing a visit of his own to Moscow which had been scheduled to begin on April 12. No reason for the postponement was given (UPI, international agencies, April 11). The suggestion of tension between Moscow and Damascus may have been significant, however, in that Russian leaders have gone out of their way in recent months to cultivate improved relations with Syria. The visit by Assad would have been his first to Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two countries are also reportedly on the verge of signing a series of military-technical agreements estimated by Russian sources to be worth some US$2 billion.

The import of yesterday’s report from Egypt is likely to become more clear in the days to come. Ivanov is scheduled to arrive in Cairo tomorrow for talks with Egyptian leaders. That visit is part of a longer Middle Eastern tour by the Russian minister which will also take him to Syria, Lebanon and Israel.