Russia eyes Mideast role, but Israel not interested

A series of Russian trial balloons floated to coax Israel and the United States into a summer peace parley in Moscow appear to have drifted astray.

Flush with oil cash and eyeing the American diplomatic struggles in the Middle East, Russia has sought to assert itself further as a member of the quartet monitoring the peace process.

But Russia’s recent overtures for a new Mideast peace summit have resulted in little more than a duet between Russia and the Palestinian Authority. Israel has shrugged off the idea of a conference, and Mideast experts say the United States would have little, if any, interest in Moscow-based talks.

“It is hard for the Israelis to say no to the United States,” said Evgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Middle East Institute in Moscow. “With Russia, it is no problem at all to say no.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made the rounds in Moscow last month, sounding a confident and hopeful note even as fighting continued between Hamas and Israel.

Shortly after Abbas left Russia, several media outlets downplayed his visit. A commentator for Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency called the results of the Abbas visit unimpressive and said the conference likely would be postponed.

Israel has not received an official invitation to a summit in Moscow and would have to review the agenda for such a conference before it could decide to attend, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Moscow.

“It’s no secret that Israel prefers bilateral negotiations,” the spokesman said, adding a Moscow conference could be good or bad for Israel, depending on the discussions.

The possibility of a Moscow conference arose in the run-up to talks held last November in Annapolis, Md., as the United States worked to include Syria in the peace process. In an effort to sweeten the pot, Moscow held out the option of a second conference in Russia that could include the Golan Heights on the agenda.

Since the Annapolis talks, Russia largely has been left in the dark on the state of negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, the Russian daily Kommersant reported.

Russia brings a unique set of connections and qualifications to the negotiating table, especially with Arab states, based on its willingness to engage the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, and conduct bilateral talks with Syria, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of a newsletter on Syria.

After the collapse, there was little room for Russia at the negotiating table. Although Moscow kept open avenues with Arab states, those states were increasingly wary of Russia’s ability to help them.

Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the dynamic may change over the next five to 10 years with a resurgent Russia and an increasingly bogged-down United States.

“Its kind of oil-based, crony capitalist, semi-authoritarian political system actually meshes quite nicely with those in the Arab world,” Cook said. “The Arabs may find it convenient to play Moscow off of Washington.”