The world has been focusing almost exclusively on the events in Syria and Russia’s role in them, ignoring a perennial core regional issue – the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2019, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip kept protesting and calling upon Israel to end the blockade of their territory and to lift restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The current US policy under the Donald Trump administration, as many prominent American and Russian experts - including Daniel Kurtzer and Vitaly Naumkin - point out, undermines the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. The hopes of the Palestinian people for their own state keep waning. Mostly, it is a result of the White House’s unilateral moves: the cut of US bilateral assistance programs to Palestinians, as well as contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the overturn of the US position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are no longer considered illegal. “The deal of the century” promised by Donald Trump since 2016, has not been revealed in its entirety yet, however, its chances of success are extremely low.
Given an apparent decrease in the scope of the US’ involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, Russia is often said to be in a good position to replace Washington. However, Moscow has no intention to play a role of the “gendarme” in the region, as the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said. But what about a role in ensuring the Israeli-Palestinian settlement?
What can Russia gain from mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Russian officials, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, continue to draw the attention of the international community to the urgency of resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The official website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that “Russia stands for a comprehensive and fair settlement of the conflict in the Middle East on the basis of a solid international legal framework, for ending the occupation of Arab lands begun by Israel in 1967”. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal. In 2017, Russia recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine). One of the key elements of Russia’s approach to the conflict has been to promote the establishment of a functioning, viable Palestinian state. Moscow is a member of the Middle Eastern Quartet alongside the US, the EU and the UN. Nowadays, however, it is obvious that this format bites the dust.
In the Russian version of the MFA website’s page on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is more detailed than the English one, we can find some critical remarks about the United States and Israel. For example, the first line is that “the primary responsibility [for a standstill] lies with Israel and the United States.” The US’ recent unilateral decisions and their clear anti-Palestinian approach allowed Russia to demonstrate its readiness to work with both sides in the conflict. In theory, Russia can gain prestige and some other possible, unobvious, benefits from a more active promotion of the peace process.
Russia as a moderator: doomed to fail?
Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict gave Russian-Israeli relations a new dimension entailing both risks and opportunities. Their relationship can now be described as a pragmatic and mutually beneficial partnership. The good personal relations between Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu helped in resolving the crises, such as the incident with the downing of the IL-20 in 2018. Despite the fact that the key point of regional coordination between Russia and Israel is Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not slurred over. However, it is highly unlikely that Israel will consider Moscow seriously as a new moderator or honest broker instead of the United States. Russia has neither the financial means to compete with Washington as a main foreign assistance donor to Israel nor the intention to replace the US as Israel’s main strategic partner. For decades Washington has been trying to take into consideration the Jewish state’s security issues.
For the Israeli government, Russia’s relations with Iran and Syria remain the main spoilers. Moscow does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, which is upsetting to most Israeli counterparts. Russia is a key moderator of the intra-Palestinian talks, the last round of which took place in Moscow in 2019. As Foreign Minister Lavrov recently said: “Russia will continue its efforts to overcome the intra-Palestinian split”. The restoration of the unity of the Palestinians is a contribution to the peace process that Russia can help achieve. Palestinians are interested in a more active Russian involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, as they have said openly many times.
In recent years Russia has been trying to host Israeli-Palestinian talks, but these attempts have not led to any concrete results, as Putin mentioned in a recent interview to Al-Arabiya. Russia will probably intensify such efforts in the near future. Moscow may also use its close relations with other Arab states to ensure their participation in the meetings from the very beginning. It seems that a new format of the peace settlement, including new actors, regional and global, would be significant for this process to succeed. However, the tension in Russian-American relations and domestic issues in Israel and the US make it harder to achieve.
The US has failed in its attempts to resolve the conflict by itself or through the Middle East Quartet and the situation has gotten worse. Is Russia ready to be bogged down in the quagmire of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? As Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss from the Carnegie Endowment argue, if Russia wants to be a real power broker, it has “to put its power to work, take sides, and run the risk of antagonizing some of the parties”. It is unlikely that Moscow wants to follow this thorny path.