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Russia adapting to new role as Middle East power broker

With the US having destroyed its regional leadership position through decisions on Syria and Jerusalem, Russia is filling the vacuum as mediator

(Al-Monitor) – US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel naturally stirred the Middle East, but it also inflamed public opinion in a number of Western countries. Russia has not been left untouched, either. The announcement prompted a strong backlash from the Russian Muslim community, and major media hype around Trump’s rationale over the Jerusalem move was unleashed. The two most burning issues for Moscow were possible implications of the US decision for Russia and whether it could entail a change in the role Moscow has been playing in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict settlement.

At the expert level in Russia, there is some consensus that the Trump decision will provide Moscow with additional opportunities to strengthen its influence on this process, where it already has good working relations with all parties to the conflict. Yet opinions differ between experts and policymakers on whether Moscow needs to step up its peacemaking efforts now. Some believe Russia should take advantage of what they see as favorable political conditions and try to revive the settlement process — this time managed by Moscow. Others consider it necessary to keep monitoring the latest developments on Jerusalem, but be modest in actions given that the parties’ own readiness to negotiate is at best minimal.

On Dec. 18, the UN Security Council voted on an Egyptian-drafted resolution opposing unilateral change in the status of Jerusalem. Fourteen Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, with the United States expectedly vetoing the document. Displeased with this move, Security Council members convened a General Assembly emergency session Dec. 21. The voting results came as no surprise, as 128 states supported the resolution denouncing Trump’s decision.

When mulling over prospects for Russia’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, it is important to scrutinize two aspects: Moscow’s present position and the options it may consider.

When it comes to the first aspect, the country’s leadership today feels confident about its position in the Middle East and is ready to play a more proactive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indicative of this confidence is the idea of Moscow-led — but direct — bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been discussed for quite some time, albeit with little tangible progress.

In May, Al-Monitor looked into the official Russian position on the status of Jerusalem, stated April 6 by the Foreign Ministry. The position has not changed: Russia is ready to consider recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Arab state and West Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. Principal in this position is that for the first time at the official level Russia has started to talk about the possibility of recognizing at least part of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. This position looks much more balanced and pragmatic than that of the current US administration. It reflects Russia’s policy in the Middle East as a whole, one of forming relations with regional states that enable Russia to play an “honest broker” in settling the conflicts tearing up the Middle East.

The second aspect, however — considering new options — looks more complicated. It is unlikely that Russia will be stepping up its diplomatic efforts on the conflict through an old option — the Quartet on the Middle East, a negotiation format for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bringing together Russia, the United States, the European Union and the UN. There is a sense that this form of mediation is not effective at this point, possibly because of the parties’ own direct efforts.

Three newer options, however, show varying prospects for success:

  • The first option would be to attempt to force the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down at the negotiating table under the auspices of Moscow, pointing to Washington’s now-obvious inconsistency as an intermediary in this delicate matter. This approach may look interesting, since merely beginning such talks would clearly demonstrate Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Deeper examination of the option, however, reveals some shortcomings. The failure to resolve Israeli-Palestinian tensions can’t really be blamed on this or previous US administrations, as it is questionable whether the two sides are or have been willing and able to settle the conflict. Even if Moscow can organize the bilateral Palestinian-Israeli talks formally, the odds are slim that negotiations would produce an acceptable — or even intermediate — success. The current political environment also is not sufficiently pressuring the parties to sit down at the negotiating table. In recent weeks, the Palestinians dispatched high-ranking delegations to Moscow and Beijing. The visits are expected to continue, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expected to visit Russia soon.
  • The second option could employ a “Syria First” strategy. If Russia successfully navigates a process of political normalization in this Arab state, the experience gained there would allow Moscow to be more effective in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, and the emergence of a new political reality in the region might create new prerequisites to settle this protracted conflict. The problem with this option is, despite Russia’s obvious military successes in this area, it is hard to envisage how successful Syria’s own political transformation will be, given the great number of stakeholders — inside and outside the region — and all the complexities of their relationships with one another.
  • As for the third option, Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has brought the issue front and center internationally, but Moscow, on the contrary, could set up a low-profile trilateral group of experts to brainstorm proposals to solve the Jerusalem issue. The group might include experts on the region representing Israel, Palestine and Russia. The group should come up with several approaches to a solution that would embrace the interests of both parties in the conflict. Since the group would consist solely of experts, it should not feel politically constrained from being as creative as possible. In this case, there is a chance that some fresh approach could develop. If this were to happen, the proposal could be brought to the political level. If not, political risks would be minimal, and the group’s work would remain a useful experience because of the experts’ cooperation.

Whatever scenario Moscow eventually chooses, Russia is likely to remain steadfast in developing good relations with both parties and will continue to pursue a prudent policy so it can play a significant, if not central, role in the settlement. But it should also be mindful that as more time passes, there is less hope that such a settlement can be reached at all.

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