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Special Reports Last Updated: Apr 25th, 2008 - 00:31:17

The Palestinians are coming
By Eric Walberg
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 25, 2008, 00:21

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Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas just returned from Moscow, where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and reached agreement on a proposal for a Middle East peace conference in Moscow as early as June.

�We want the Moscow conference to be held as soon as possible and we hope that it will succeed in pushing the peace process forward,� Abbas said in a lecture to Moscow university students.

Lavrov said that the event would give a �second wind� to the Annapolis process. At last November�s Annapolis meeting, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert formally restarted negotiations after a seven-year freeze in the peace process, aiming to conclude a comprehensive agreement by the end of 2008.

Abbas also sought Putin�s help to bring about a ceasefire in Gaza, with Egypt supposedly brokering a deal. �I will inform President Putin of the situation in Gaza and I am sure Russia will make efforts� to bring about a ceasefire. Abbas is also to hold talks in Washington this week with Bush.

This development heralds a new surge of Russia diplomacy in the Muslim world. Putin is just back from Libya where he settled Soviet debts and struck a natural gas deal. Then there was Putin�s trip to Saudi Arabia in January, where it was announced that a Russian company was awarded close to $1 billion for constructing a railway across Saudi Arabia with talk of a major arms deal. And of course Egypt�s President Hosni Mubarak�s trip to Moscow in March for a nuclear energy deal and an agreement on a new air defense system for Egypt. Russia also recently expressed interest in joining the Organisation of Islam Conference. All this during the last few months of Putin�s presidency, clearly a signal of the direction of Russia�s foreign policy in the future.

These developments, while hailed in the Arab world, have been viewed with suspicion in the West. Talk of a Gazprom-ENI deal to export Libyan natural gas was immediately interpreted in Europe ominously as Russia trying to encircle the EU, and gain an energy stranglehold, this, despite the more obvious encirclement of Russia which recent NATO expansion and US missile bases in eastern Europe suggest.

What gives Russia an edge in its diplomatic demarche is its ties with Hamas, Syria and Iran. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Moscow in February and hosted the Russian foreign minister in Damascus last month in Syria. Russian diplomats believe they can use their ties with Israeli foes to broker a peace deal that will hold. Russian officials said in March the Moscow peace conference would try to restart talks which fell through in 2000 between Israel and Syria on the occupied Golan Heights.

The US State Department treated the idea coolly: �There�s no agreement on a date, or the particular agenda of the conference.� Olmert earlier signalled reluctance to attend a Middle East summit hosted by Russia, but did not entirely rule it out. This indifference, continued violence in Gaza, and Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories all suggest the prospects of even holding the conference are not stellar.

Russia, along with the US, EU and the UN, make up the �Middle East Quartet.� Russia is the only member that has ties with Hamas. Since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, the US and the EU have sought to bolster Abbas and sideline Hamas financially and diplomatically. Russia has resisted this blatant move. One of Abbas�s aims during his visit -- the first since Hamas took control of Gaza last June -- was to press Russia to cut contacts with Hamas.

He didn�t achieve this, though Sergei Vershinin, head of the Foreign Ministry�s Middle East Department, said that Moscow would not invite any Hamas representatives to the conference. �Our contacts [with Hamas] are aimed at maintaining Palestinian unity on a basis that can lead to peace with Israel.� Lavrov�s trip to Syria in March where he met exiled Hamas�s Mashaal was intended to do just that. Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov also said, �We have somewhat reduced our ties with Hamas recently, and maintain contacts with them with one practical, pragmatic goal -- to establish dialogue and unity among the Palestinians.� He criticised Hamas�s taking over of Gaza last June. Before the June uprising, Moscow had treated Abbas and Mashaal as equals, he said, but afterwards contacts with Mashaal were reduced to show they considered Abbas the legitimate Palestinian leader.

The Fatah leader has declined to openly criticise Russia for engaging with Hamas, telling Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta that this was �Russia�s matter as a sovereign state.� In an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant, Palestinian Charge d�Affaires Faed Moustafa said, �Mahmud Abbas is sure that Russia will use its contacts with Hamas for one purpose: to restore the unity of the Palestinian people.�

Putin greeted Abbas warmly. �You have come at a difficult moment and the situation is difficult. But we are certain that you and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert are making joint efforts to move forward with talks. We welcome and support that,� he said. Lavrov told Abbas, �We firmly support you as the lawful leader of all Palestinians and support all your efforts directed at the achievement of unity among Palestinians. We are discussing the question of providing support to the Palestinian people and to your administration.� Denisov said that Russia planned to boost humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories, and may provide 50 armoured personnel carriers and other equipment for the West Bank, which Fatah controls.

Abbas said he was interested in securing support from Moscow because Palestine had always enjoyed close ties with Russia, clearly referring to traditional Soviet support for the Palestinians after its fateful decision in 1948 to recognise an independent Israel.

However post-Soviet Russia�s support for Israel has changed the rules of the game. Under Putin, Russian trade with Israel has doubled to over $3 billion, including weapon sales. Russia also is the direct provider of most of Israel�s oil. In 2005, as the first Russian leader to visit Israel, Putin noted that Russian-born Jews, who had been allowed to leave Russia after the end of Communism, made up 25 percent of the Israeli population. Many of those Jews still had links to Russia and held joint Russian-Israeli passports, meaning that Russia has a direct interest in their fate. What Putin did not mention was that some of that interest is not benign, as these dual citizens include some of Israel�s richest men who used their Israeli passports to flee Russia to avoid corruption charges.

Signaling, however slightly, a new independence, Abbas said his administration did not want the US to dictate who takes part in the Moscow conference. �We do not want the United States to apply pressure. We want the US position to be coordinated with international organisations, and not be a substitute for them.�

Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at

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