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At 77, Evgeny Primakov projects anything but old age. Anyone who watched him on TV during the Soviet era can testify that he has hardly changed over the years, in spite of the many turns of his lengthy career in Russian politics.
Starting out as a journalist for the Soviet daily, Pravda, Primakov then worked for the Foreign Intelligence Service (which he headed in 1991-1996). He served as foreign minister from 1996-1998, and then prime minister in 1998-1999. Today he heads Russia's Trade Chamber. He is also a close adviser to President Vladimir Putin, with whom he imparts 50 years' worth of his experience in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy.
Throughout his career, Primakov maintained personal relations with almost every Arab leader, including Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, King Hussein of Jordan and PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
He was also in contact with leading Israeli figures, with whom he held secret negotiations during the '70s, after the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations ties with Jerusalem in 1967.
In the West, Primakov is often accused of promoting a pro-Arab political line - a tradition of Soviet-era diplomacy aimed at countering American influence in the region.
Others consider him a pragmatist.
Today, with Russia again under attack over its Mideast diplomacy (for not fully backing US attempts at isolating Teheran and or Hamas), Primakov wants to explain the rationale behind Kremlin policy.
During a recent visit to Israel, he gave an exclusive interview to The Jerusalem Post to do just that.
Over the years you have made innumerable visits to the region. Do you see a major change here as a result of recent significant events, such as the death of Yasser Arafat, the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon and the rise of Hamas in the PA?
I do not think that the region has changed beyond recognition, despite these events. I cannot say that the new leaders in Israel and the PA are completely unknown to us. What is important is what policies they promote and how they act in the future. Unfortunately, the new Israeli leadership chose to freeze all contact with the elected Palestinian government, which in my view will not achieve the desirable outcome for the Israelis. I think that without dialogue one cannot make progress, and if the new Palestinian government collapses as a result of economic pressure or internal clashes with Fatah, it will not bring the stability and security that Israel so craves. If someone wants to exploit this situation of "no dialogue" to establish facts on the ground, i.e. draw the borders unilaterally, well, I think that these steps will only bring an escalation of the conflict.
But how can you maintain a dialogue with someone who doesn't recognize you and openly declares interest in erasing you off the map?
It is true that Hamas has to change its rhetoric, and I believe it is unwise on their part to express support for the recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. But you also have to understand that politics is a dynamic process, and I'm quite positive that the new Palestinian leadership will undergo the necessary change. However it's unrealistic to demand it from them at the moment, so soon after they have been elected. As for terrorism, as far as I know, Hamas has maintained a truce with Israel for more than a year now and the attack in Tel Aviv was not conducted by their military wing.
Israel voiced strong criticism of Russian policy following the Kremlin's invitation to Hamas leaders to Moscow in March. How can the Kremlin invite Hamas to Moscow, while at the same time pursuing its own anti-terrorism war in Chechnya against Shamil Basaev and his allies?
The leaders of Hamas are members of an elected Palestinian government that was shaped as an outcome of free, transparent and democratic elections. Shamil Basaev is not a legitimate spokesman of the Chechen people, and if you remember, the late Chechen president, [Akmad] Kadirov, fought us during the first [Chechen] war, but we had contacts with him after that [Kadirov was killed on May 9, 2004 in a bomb blast at the Grozny stadium.]
May I also remind you that Israeli leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were leaders of armed movements, which were behind many acts of terrorism - such as the explosion at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. However, they were elected as prime ministers and the world maintained normal diplomatic ties with them despite their past.
As for Hamas's visit to Moscow: It didn't at all clash with the policy of the Quartet. In fact, many parties of the Quartet were interested in these negotiations to happen, and definitely didn't oppose them.
As an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, aren't you afraid of the consequences of Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections - that it perhaps marks a new era for radical Islamist movements in the region?
It is important to differentiate between groups and parties that are considered to be Islamic or Islamists. There are some very sound and pragmatic people among them. However, there is no doubt that the power of the Islamist parties in the Middle East is on the rise; they are increasing their presence in parliaments and national councils, and it's true that if democratic elections were held today in some other countries in the region, the Islamist movements would probably win there, too. I can tell you that a friend of mine, a high-ranking Fatah member, told me that the Palestinians begged the US to postpone the elections for the Palestinian Authority, foreseeing the consequences of these elections.
So you think that holding elections in the Middle East is a miscalculation on the part of the Americans?
In my opinion, the powers that be in the US today - the neoconservatives, the "Democratizersâ€š" as I call them - act quite like the Trotskyites during the '20s, trying to export democracy from the outside, without considering the balance of power in this particular region. We have made this mistake just once in Afghanistan, trying to support the revolutionary process, without the support of the real revolutionary elements in the country. And today the Americans are doing it in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and other places in the region, without predicting the consequences.
What role would you like for Russia to play in the Middle East? Do you hope, as many Arab leaders probably do, that it will restore its Soviet-era influence on local affairs? Are Russia's latest moves the realization of your own "Zero-sum game" doctrine that promotes the principles of multi-polarity in international policy?
I do not think that Russia is interested in becoming an alternative player in the Middle East, but rather an equal partner in the "conflict resolution club." Each party in this club will have a different duty and a different role, and Russia certainly has a lot to contribute: its historical ties, understanding of the region, experience. Lets take the Iranian example. Currently the Americans are trapped in their own rhetoric of impossibility of negotiations with Teheran, though they do have indirect contacts via Zalmay Khalizad, the US ambassador in Iraq. Well, why can't the model of North Korean conflict resolution be implemented here? There were six parties involved in those negotiations. Why can't the EU, India, China, Russia, the US and the UN have multilateral talks with Iran today? After all, our common goal is to prevent military conflict with Teheran, which could bring about an explosion of anti-Western sentiment in the region. We also want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, which is a dangerous and unwanted development for everyone, including Russia.
Do you have any doubts at all about the Iranian president's intentions toward Israel? The threats are coming out on a daily basis from Teheran.
I believe that these kinds of expressions are intolerable and should be stopped at once. But I also tend to think that [Ahmadinajad's] views are not shared by all of Iran's leadership, and that the statements of Ahmadinajad are of a propagandist nature, which doesn't make them any less horrific. It is clear that the world, and, of course, Russia, would not tolerate the annihilation of Israel, and I can testify that during the '70s - when it was my task to maintain ties with high-ranking Israeli officials - I had clear instructions to pass on to the Israelis the following: that the Soviet Union would be the first to come to Israel's aid if it were to face an existential threat.
You maintained close ties with Israelis during the'70s; you were involved in the opening of the Israeli "window" in the Netherlands embassy prior to renewal of ties in 1991; and you met with many Israeli politicians during the '90s within the framework of your position as foreign minister and prime minister. In what direction do you think the ties between Russia and Israel have developed?
I agree that the potential of relations between our two countries has not yet been fulfilled, and the key problem, in my opinion, is the lack of trust. There is a lot of untapped potential. I came to Israel now at the invitation of the Israeli Association of Manufacturers to discuss economic cooperation between Russia and Israel. But I think that Israelis have to trust our intentions more. I will give you an example. Last year, I accompanied president Putin during his visit to Israel and the PA, and I recall that his offer to grant Mahmoud Abbas two helicopters and some military equipment with which to combat terrorists was sharply denied by Ariel Sharon.
Is he supposed to fight the terrorists with his bare hands? In my new book, I quote the conversation between [President Bill] Clinton and [Yitzhak] Rabin in 1993, when Clinton asked Rabin why he had changed his policy [regarding the settlements as security] and Rabin explained that after the war in Iraq, he understood that the occupied territories were not a safety belt for Israel, as rockets can pass over them easily. He also said that "if we will allow the Palestinians to participate in our elections, then Israel will lose its Jewish character, and if not, we become an apartheid state."
When I read that statement, I couldn't believe my eyes, because we had said the very same things to Rabin in the '70s.
Of all the figures in the Middle East with whom you came into contact, who made the greatest impression on you?
Gamal Abd al-Nasser. I believe that he was a very positive figure. I also had most fascinating encounters with Hafez al-Asad, King Hussein, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and others. One of the Israelis who impressed me the most was definitely Bibi Netanyahu, whom I respect a lot, despite the criticism toward him from within the Arab world. I describe many of these encounters in my book that will be published in the fall.
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