Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday as he sought backing from one of the few countries powerful enough to challenge US support for Israel over the status of Jerusalem and other key issues central to any final peace deal.
No partnership was formally agreed but behind closed doors Palestinian officials remain cautiously hopeful that Moscow’s race with Washington for strategic supremacy over the wider region could yet play into their hands.
After the talks Abdel Hafiz Nofal, the PA’s ambassador to Russia, attended a dinner hosted by Putin and he told Arab News that representatives from the two sides had “good and deep discussions” about a variety of subjects.
“The Middle East is very important to the Russians and we are optimistic about this process but it will not be easy,” he said.
Monday’s talks occurred two months after US President Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, overturning decades of diplomatic convention and provoking condemnation from most of the international community.
In response, the Palestinians have begun to look for new allies to co-sponsor any future peace talks and counter Washington’s close working relationship with Tel Aviv. Publicly at least, Putin offered no guarantees in this week’s meeting but the PA continues to believe there is scope for some kind of mutually beneficial agreement.
Speaking in Moscow, Abbas said the “atmosphere created” by Trump’s controversial decision had left him with little choice but to look elsewhere for diplomatic support.
“We ask that the United States be not the only mediator but just one of the mediators,” he said.
Meanwhile, Putin told Abbas the “situation is far from what we want to see” and added that he has “always supported the Palestinian people”.
After the talks the Palestinian media reported that Abbas provided his Russian counterpart with a summary of his troubled attempts to engage the US in dialogue since Trump entered the White House in January 2017.
Last November the State Department threatened to close the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington in response to Palestinian efforts to take the issue of Israel’s occupation to the International Criminal Court. The US later reversed its decision, only for Trump to then announce that he intended to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a particularly emotive issue for Arabs and Muslims worldwide and previous US administrations have ordinarily regarded it is a matter that can only be decided as part of a final peace deal that also addresses other key issues such as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland and the fate of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank - townships that are considered illegal under international law.
In a Dec. 21 vote at the UN, 128 countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UK, France and Germany condemned the US president’s announcement. Only nine countries backed it, among them Israel, Guatemala and Micronesia.
Prior to Monday’s talks Putin received a phone call from Trump in which the US president told him they should all “work toward an enduring peace agreement,” according to a White House statement. However, the Palestinians see little hope of that while America is calling all the shots.
Hazm Al Mazouni, a Russian-speaking Syrian journalist based in Amman, told Arab News that Monday’s talks need to be seen in a broader regional context, with Moscow increasingly confident that it can roll back US strategic influence in the Middle East.
In September 2015 Russia began a military campaign in Syria, carrying out air strikes in support of the beleaguered government of President Bashar Al-Assad. The move helped alter the course of the civil war there, wresting momentum from US-sponsored rebels.
“A look at the Russian approach in Syria shows that it wants a bigger role in confronting the US and in pursuing its policies in the region,” said Al Mazouni.