Netanyahu and Abbas.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The toughest part of negotiations, said US Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly in 2013, paraphrasing former British prime minister Tony Blair, is the launch.
The reason for this, he said as he labored to start negotiations that year, “is because both sides want to understand what the parameters are, how you will negotiate and what you negotiate about. And once you get to that, then you can begin to dig in and get to the hard work.”
If that is the case, then the announcement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed“in principle” to talks in Moscow ought to be cause for celebration.
If the hardest part is the launch, and the Russians announced that a launch is on the way, then the rest should be just filling in the details, right? Wrong, obviously. Because if there is one thing 25 years of negotiations has taught, it is that both Blair and Kerry were mistaken. The hardest part is not starting the negotiations, but rather conducting and concluding them. Because what has emerged inside the negotiating room, time and time again, is that the gap between the most Israel is willing to give, and the least the Palestinians are willing to accept, is cavernous.
The aphorism that “everyone knows what a solution will look like” has, likewise, proven wrong repeatedly. The sides have very different conceptions of what a solution will look like. Where will the borders run? What is to be done in Jerusalem? Will Israel retain security control inside a Palestinian state? What will happen to refugee claims? Will the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people? It is hard to believe that shifting the meeting ground from Washington to Moscow is going to significantly change any of that. No one ever said that the air in Moscow makes one wise, or more willing to compromise.
Yet the Russian Foreign Ministry announcement is significant, if not because it is the harbinger of an accord just lurking right around the corner – as Kerry wanted everyone to believe back in 2013 – but rather because of what it says about Russia’s emerging power and influence in the region.
This is not the first time the Russians have proposed Moscow as a venue of talks. They did it a number of times in 2008, soon after the Annapolis Conference held by then-US president George W. Bush. But back then, everyone politely nodded, gave the Russians a gentle pat on the head, and moved on. The Americans were fully engaged in the region, and had no interest in letting the Russians elbow in on a process they were leading.
That was then. Quite a lot has changed in the Middle East in the intervening eight years, including the stature of Russia and the US. The star of the former is on the rise, while that of the latter is waning.
With Russia significantly engaged militarily right on Israel’s doorstep in Syria, and with close coordination between the two militaries critical to prevent any accidental engagement between the two air forces, Moscow’s request this time is harder – if not impossible – for Jerusalem to ignore.
It’s not a matter, as some have posited, of an Israeli bellyfull of tension with the Obama administration, foolishly looking to hedge its bets by looking to forge closer relations with Russia at America’s expense.
On the contrary, it’s a pragmatic realization that Moscow has filled a vacuum left by the US in the region, and is a player here to an extent not seen since before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As such, unlike in 2008, when Moscow calls, Jerusalem can’t just ignore it.
The same is true of the Palestinians.
While Abbas would probably certainly prefer a diplomatic process led by the French rather than by the Russians – making the assumption, not an unrealistic one – that the French would lean harder on Israel than Moscow would, he too cannot dismiss Putin’s call.
First of all, Russia has for so long backed the Palestinian cause, that they cannot now just be ignored. And, secondly, because Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – an important backer for Abbas – has come out in support of the notion, a sign of the emerging Russian-Egyptian alliance that swiftly followed a deterioration in US-Egypt ties.
While peace may not emerge from a meeting in Moscow between Abbas and Netanyahu, having the two leaders meet in one of the Kremlin’s gilded rooms will show the degree to which Russia’s influence in the Mideast has skyrocketed over the last eight years.