Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 6

In a visit which reflected both Russia’s desire to restore its influence in the Middle East and the odd political status now being accorded to the country’s recently resigned leader at home and abroad, former President Boris Yeltsin traveled to the Holy Lands last week to join with leaders of other Orthodox countries in celebrating the Christmas holiday. Yeltsin’s status as a “former” president was apparently little in evidence during the three-day visit, however. He traveled to Israel in the official state airplane which he had used as president, and was accompanied by an entourage of some 180 people, which included not only family members, but also top Russian government officials, a doctor, Kremlin reporters and a large number of beefy Russian security guards. Yeltsin was likewise accorded the full honors of a head of state in his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders during the visit–the lavishness of which led one reporter to write that it was perhaps little wonder then that the former Russian president said upon arriving in the Holy Lands that he felt “like a saint” (International Herald Tribune, January 7). Among the many epitaphs used to describe Yeltsin in recent years, that is one which has generally not been widely employed.

He arrived in Israel on the evening of January 5 and began the following day with a ceremony at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where he and the leaders of Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania were named “Knights of the Holy Sepulcher”–the highest award of Orthodoxy. Later in the day Yeltsin met with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Interior Minister Natan Sharansky. The latter is a former Soviet political prisoner who has emerged in recent years as an influential political force in Israel. Still later in the day Yeltsin held talks in Bethlehem with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. On January 7 Yeltsin attended a Christmas service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem before returning home.

While Yeltsin’s visit had some symbolic value–related both to the reemergence of the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia and to Moscow’s efforts to reclaim a role in the Middle East peace process–the former Russian president appeared to discuss little of substance during his talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. Indeed, with regard to the former, Moscow had reportedly been rebuffed earlier when it suggested that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister David Levy might return briefly to Israel–from talks with Syria taking place in the United States–in order to meet with Yeltsin (Ha’aretz, January 5). During Yeltsin’s talks with Weizman and other Israeli officials, the two sides reaffirmed their intention to continue improving relations. Yeltsin also assured his hosts that anti-Semitism is no longer rampant in Russia and predicted that Moscow’s war in Chechnya would be concluded in a month’s time. He had earlier indicated a timeframe of two months. Sharansky reportedly said that both Israel and Russia face a threat from Islamic fundamentalism, but he joined Western leaders in criticizing Moscow for not being more cognizant of the need to avoid civilian casualties in its military operations against Chechen rebels (AP, January 6; New York Times, January 7).

While Yeltsin’s talks with Israeli leaders were said to have been friendly enough, the former Russian president’s meeting with Arafat was apparently a good deal warmer. Yeltsin reportedly shed tears at one point when speaking about his friendship with Arafat, and amid embraces and clasping of hands the Russian leader once again reaffirmed Moscow’s support for Palestinian statehood. He also assured Arafat that Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin shared the same “special feeling” toward the Palestinians. For his part, Arafat was clearly using the meeting with Yeltsin–and the ceremonies surrounding the Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem more generally–to promote both Palestinian aspirations for statehood and his own, related hopes of assuming presidential duties later this year. He presented Yeltsin with a special “Bethlehem-2000” medal and a stone carving depicting the Church of the Nativity (AP, January 5-6; Russian agencies, January 6).

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was among those accompanying Yeltsin to the Middle East, suggested that Yeltsin’s visit may have produced at least one more concrete result. He told reporters that the Kremlin plans to host multinational Middle East peace talks–at the level of foreign ministers–in Moscow next month. According to an Israeli spokesman, the talks would involve a meeting of the steering committee of the multinational talks which were first convened in Moscow in early 1992 as a follow-up to the peace process launched by the United States and the USSR in October of 1991. The talks, which would focus on such broad regional issues as arms control, economic development, the environment, refugees and water shortages–have been frozen since 1996. It was unclear over the weekend whether the Russian proposal had won formal endorsement, but various news sources suggested that the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans had all given the idea at least some support. Itar-Tass quoted diplomatic sources in Moscow as saying that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would visit Moscow to meet with acting President Vladimir Putin on January 30–two days before the planned multinational Middle East peace talks (Reuters, January 6; Xinhua, January 6; Itar-Tass, January 7).