Russia as the New Power Broker in the Mideast

By C. Hart

The massive ten-year U.S. military aid package successfully negotiated between the White House and Israel, proves America’s continued commitment to Israel’s security. It ensures Israel’s QME (Qualitative Military Edge) over its enemies. And, provides U.S President Barack Obama with an incentive that Israeli leaders are worried about… a way of leveling the Middle East playing field.

The Israelis are concerned that in Obama’s last days as president, after U.S. elections in November, and before the next American president enters the White House, he will align himself with those pushing the French Initiative -- a peace plan proposed this week that would require Israel to retreat to its pre-1967 borders. Another possibility is that Obama could decide to formulate an American paper, or come alongside a European country formulating such a paper, that would be presented to the UN Security Council setting definitive borders for a two-state solution. Adding a specific demand that Israel cease settlement expansion, in line with UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon’s rebuke of Israel recently, could result in limited maneuverability for the Jewish State within diplomatic circles.  

Weighing options of how to move the peace process forward, without having to submit to American or European expectations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently agreed, in principle, to meet with Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow. If it actually happens, it will be the first direct meeting between the two leaders in six years.

Netanyahu has spent the past year developing a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, mainly because of his military intervention in Syria, but also because of Russia’s overall increased presence and influence in the Middle East. Russia has filled a void resulting from America’s diminished authority in the region. Many observers have already noticed that Putin has sought to replace America’s superpower status, taking up the position of the new Middle East powerbroker. He seems more interested in that role than the results of future peace negotiations.

According to Dan Diker, a Project Director and Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Netanyahu would prefer to have Putin as a mediating host because the vital issues for Israel may be easier to secure with the Russians.

“I think that Moscow provides a more comfortable address for Netanyahu because the Russians appear to be less concerned with the issue of final borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority than the current U.S. Administration.”

Putin may not insist that Israel provide refuge to thousands, perhaps millions, of Palestinians that want to live in Israel as part of their “right of return”. He may not expect Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 line as the Palestinians have demanded. And, he may not try and pressure Israel into dividing its capital city, Jerusalem. It seems that Putin’s greater interest is in playing a strong and active role in Syria, as well as along the Lebanese border.

Furthermore, Diker sees Israel’s diplomatic ties with Moscow as a way of countering whatever plans may emanate from the White House.

“It can create leverage for Israel because Russia sits as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. They could influence other permanent and non-permanent members away from an American paper that would recognize the Palestinian pre-state authority as a member state. Perhaps, the U.S. would lay out American parameters for some sort of final status. There are indications that this could happen in the next few months, beginning this month when the UN General Assembly meets. It would not be good for Israel or the Palestinian Authority.”

Diker explains that Obama has indicated by his statements and actions on the Palestinian-Israeli issue over the past eight years that he believes he can establish a viable Palestinian state. “And, he has in that context, favored Palestinian sovereignty, even at a time when the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian leadership are in complete chaos and disarray.”

All this points to a strategic decision by Israel to accept a new principle, the idea of talking to Abbas under Russian stewardship and mediation. “We already had the America mediation two years ago with Kerry, and it fell flat on its face,” says Diker.

He adds that the French approach is dangerous and unworkable. “The French want a place of leadership in the Middle East. Europe has been shunned by both sides, recently, and they want to play a lead role. It is completely outside Israel’s interest.”

Netanyahu had to find another way forward.  

“He has several options: perhaps, an Egyptian-sponsored initiative, or a Jordanian-sponsored initiative. Or, he can go to Russia because Russia would place much less pressure on Israel to accept indefensible borders.”

At this point, the idea of a Moscow summit between Israel and the Palestinians is only speculative. It is not clear that either side really wants to meet. Diker’s perception is that, “This is only to create other options aside from the American approach. Or, perhaps deter the Americans from bringing their own peace initiative to the UN.”

This writer asked Diker how meeting face-to-face with Netanyahu benefits Abbas or the Palestinians.

 “I don’t think that entering into negotiations with Netanyahu will benefit Abbas. He is at the end of his career, and well into his 80’s. He wants to leave a legacy as a Palestinian leader who gave up nothing. However, there is so much pressure on him from the West, he is going to have to accept something.”

There are still conditions being placed on the Israelis, apparently coming from the Palestinian side, about a settlement freeze, as well as demands for releasing Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. But, Netanyahu has only agreed to meet Abbas if there are no preconditions.

“I would be unsurprised if these are conditions that were supported by the American side; including the cessation of settlement building, which basically has happened anyway.” Diker is referring to what has seemed to be Netanyahu’s placid willingness to sidestep construction approval for new settlement building in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

Meanwhile, the process of inviting Russia in, as a possible new Middle East powerbroker to replace the role of the U.S., is significant. This advancement comes on the heels of a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Putin. Egypt and Russia have been forging closer ties, while Israel is also improving ties with Egypt.

Diker cited reasons for these new alliances, one of which is that, “The Egyptians are profoundly concerned and unhappy with the Obama administration. It seems clear to the Egyptians that Obama actively encouraged Mubarak’s ouster, and then supported the term and the rule of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.”

When the Egyptian military helped overthrow Morsi, the U.S. government held up military assistance to Egypt. So, in a time of uncertainty, Egypt looked to Russia to fill in the gap.

Putin is making other significant advances in the Middle East, militarily and diplomatically. America’s failure to go through with a no-fly zone in Syria hurt its credibility, especially with neighboring Arab states. Today, America’s freedom of action in Syria is constrained, and its influence over the Assad government minimal. Instead, U.S. forces have to pay attention to Russia’s advanced weapons capabilities in Syria, and avoid confrontation.

Due to a major military intervention in Syria on President Assad’s behalf, Russia secured a military footprint in the country. This advantageous move by Putin has forced America to reckon with his demand that Assad stay in power in a transitional government under a future peace agreement between Assad and Syrian opposition groups. While America’s influence wanes in the region, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are looking to Russia as a new formidable regional power.

Netanyahu recognizes the shift, and it is in Israel’s current strategic interest to maintain a relationship with Putin, even though Russia has the capability of striking military targets in Israel at some future time. For now, however, Netanyahu has been looking for a new peace path.

Diker recognizes that, currently, Russia is the winning horse. Putin has a warm feeling for Israel because of the over 1.2 million Russians in Israel, which is the largest ex-pat community outside of Russia.

A main interest for Israel is keeping the Iranians and their Shiite proxy forces away from Israel’s northern border, and Russia has influence there.

“This is an Israeli attempt to reshuffle the cards; and, to continue maintaining a much closer relationship with Russia, because of its interest in the north. Remember Russia will affect, in a very serious way, what happens with Hezbollah, and what happens on the Israel-Syrian border, all of which is connected to Iran.”

Diker says that Russian mediation would give breathing space to Israel in the context of diplomatic conversations with the Palestinian Authority.

But, there are obstacles in the road for any kind of progress in peace between the two sides, such as:  Palestinian infighting in Gaza and the West Bank over future Palestinian elections; Abbas cast as a servant of Israel and the West by radical elements in Palestinian circles; and, a peace process that has wide gaps which have not been resolved over the years, causing cynicism on both sides.

Diker, himself, thinks it is unlikely that Russia will successfully do what past U.S. administrations could not. He does not believe that there will be serious progress with Russian mediation. “This is all pyrotechnics. It has nothing to do with serious peace making. It has nothing to do with real Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. It all has to do with smoke and mirrors.”

In the meantime, all eyes are on Russia in the region, as Putin looks to assert himself as a major Middle East power player and negotiator. He will continue to find opportunities to advance Russia’s interests, while reaching out his hand to Israel and Arab states. At the same time, he will not hesitate to use Russian military and political power on terrorist organizations or state entities that get in the way of his strategic plans.

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