Why Does Russia Need a Middle East Conference?

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti, by Marianna Belenkaya) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed holding an international conference on the Middle East peace process in Moscow this fall.

This statement alone has made his Middle Eastern tour something of a sensation.

Moscow had up until now preferred to maintain a low profile in the Middle East peace process. Russian diplomats worked with the other members of the quartet of mediators (the U.S., EU and UN) to draft the "road map" peace plan and Russian foreign ministers regularly visited the region. But all of these steps were made away from the political spotlight, whereas in public the Kremlin did nothing more than speak about "a just peace in the Middle East."

The situation has changed radically now. But if the Arabs are happy about this, then Israel and the U.S. are concerned and asking questions, which is logical. Vladimir Putin advanced the conference idea in Cairo but did not explain what its goals should be.

Putin’s idea was "misunderstood and distorted," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Jerusalem yesterday. Russia was not suggesting a summit, but routine consultations on ways to advance the Palestine-Israel settlement.

Choosing the fall as the timeframe of the conference was wise: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and the West Bank should be completed by that time.

"It’s a jump into the unknown," diplomatic sources say. "We will have to reassess the situation, harmonize our positions, ensure proper delimitation, and so on."

Another task will be to link Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza to the peace process in general. The forthcoming withdrawal is not a part of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement but a security measure taken by Israel, which it keeps repeating. This is why Moscow decided a new meeting of the concerned countries would be needed after Sharon’s plan was implemented.

The public was misled by the word "conference." The road map stipulates two conferences.

One is to be held after the Palestinian election in a bid to support the Palestinian economy and launch a process that should result in the creation of an independent Palestinian state within provisional borders. It can be said that this conference was held in London this March. Israel ignored it, saying that it did not need to be present at a discussion of Palestinian reforms, which is a disputable view. Accordingly, the provisional borders were not discussed in London.

The second conference, to be held at the next stage of the peace process, should approve agreements on the creation of a Palestinian state within provisional borders and launch discussions of the final settlement conditions. This is what frightens Israel.

But the suggested Moscow meeting is not connected to the above conferences at all. The final settlement remains a remote prospect, and the road map is not being complied with properly (only individual elements of the first stage are being implemented). So, Israel has no reason to fear that unacceptable settlement conditions will be forced on it in Moscow.

Sharon’s administration reacted to Putin’s idea by saying Israel was against foreign interference in the Palestine-Israel conflict. But Russia is not intending to put pressure on either side in the conflict, and is only proposing compromise solutions, which the Palestinians and Israelis can accept or reject. Vladimir Putin said in an interview on the eve of his Middle Eastern tour: "We cannot and will not act in place of the negotiating parties."

In an interview he granted to Russian journalists, Sharon repeatedly praised Russia’s role in the Middle East process. Israel may still think that Russian policy in the region is pro-Arab, but Moscow is positioning itself as an objective intermediary and will try to prove this honest intention. This is why Putin has always stressed in conversations with Israeli and Arab politicians that the security of Israel is important to Russia.

This is what Russian diplomats will have to explain to Israel and the U.S. There is enough time to do this before fall, particularly given that the situation in the Middle East tends to change very quickly. But if the Moscow meeting is postponed, the Kremlin will not complain. The most important thing is that the meeting benefits the region.