The Palestinians are hoping for a boost to their diplomatic stature when they host Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month.
At a time when the attempts to restart peace negotiations with the Israelis have floundered as each side accuses the other of intransigence, the Palestinians see Putin’s visit as a solid message of support.
“It is a message for the Israelis that everybody has agreed that there will be a Palestinian state next to the Israeli state and no matter what they do making de facto realities on the ground it will not work,” Munther Dajani, professor of political science at Al-Quds University near Jerusalem, told The Media Line referring the Palestinian’s red-line demand that Israel halt building in its post-1967 communities.
Russian officials said Putin would visit Ramallah on June 26 and meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. From there he was scheduled to go to Bethlehem and then cross into Jordan and meet with King Abdullah II. While in Jordan, Putin is also expected to travel to the reputed Baptism site of Jesus on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.
Putin — who began his third term as president last month after having served for four years as prime minister immediately post an eight-year presidential stint — will visit the Palestinian territories and Jordan following a 24-hour trip to Israel the day before, aiming to improve the problematic Israeli-Russian relations.
The announcement of Putin’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was made during a reception the Russian representative office had held in Ramallah on Tuesday celebrating Russia’s National Day.
After his diplomatic meetings, the Russian president is expected to inaugurate a new Russian cultural center in Bethlehem, linked to the Palestinian Orthodox Society, that will kick-off Russian cultural week in the Palestinian Authority.
“There are very strong educational, cultural and social ties between the Palestinians and the Russians. A lot of Palestinians married Russians when they studied there and brought them here so there is a nascent family community who speak Russian,” Dr. Samir Awwad, a professor of international relations at Birzeit University, told The Media Line.
Putin’s delegation will reportedly consist of about 150 people, 12-15 of them will be high-ranking officials. Businessmen will assist the delegation. While Russia has given social and diplomatic support, it has not come anywhere close to the financial support the PA receives from Western Europe and the United States.
Russia has provided only some $10 million in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority, while the U.S.A. and European Union have given hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Putin visited the Palestinian Authority in 2005, and his immediate predecessor Dmitry Medvedev made a short trip there in January 2011. In that visit, Medvedev came from Jordan and skipped Israel since its foreign ministry staff was on strike. But he only went to Jericho and did not visit the seat of the Palestinian government in Ramallah, as Putin plans to do on this upcoming trip.
“This is actually recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza whether the Israelis like it or not. It is a political statement and a message for the Israelis that this is coming,” Prof. Dajani said.
Dajani, whose wife earned her medical degree in the former Soviet Union, said many faculty members at Al-Quds University studied there. Many senior Palestinian leaders also studied in the former Soviet Union or Russia and even Abbas himself earned his doctorate at a university in Moscow.
“For the Palestinians, Russia is a very significant state, a superpower, and they have always taken the side of the Palestinians, especially when it comes to self-determination,” Awwad echoed. “The Palestinians need Russian support tremendously, particularly since the United States is in the pocket of Israel, as they say.”
“The fact is, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict right now is in a sort of low [gear], but it can erupt and the Russians don’t want to feed or substantiate instability in the region so they would want the conflict to be resolved,” Awwad added.
Both Dajani and Awwad dismissed the notion that Russia could see any future Palestinian entity as a substitute for Moscow’s strategic and tactical ally Syria, currently in the throes of a deadly civil war.
“Let’s not go too far here,” Dajani said. “Syria owes Russia close to $30 billion and Russia has a lot of interest in the regime in Syria, and it’s not because [Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad] is nice and handsome. It is because of the Russian sales and the Syrian debts. They have to make sure before [Assad] falls that someone picks up the bill,” Dajani said.
“We always had Russian support. Russia was more even handed in their relations with the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Dajani. “Russia says they both have the right to exist and they want to make sure everybody understands that.”
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