When the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, enters the meeting room of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he is met with smiles and handshakes.
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He knows personally a majority of members of the committee, as well as many other MKs and ministers.
Michail Margelov is not a stranger in Israel. In fact, he is one of the senior Russian officials to visit most often in recent years, building close ties with many politicians.
He spoke to The Jerusalem Post
in the capital last week while on a five-day visit with three other members of the Federation Council of Russia to participate in a meeting of the Russian-Israeli interparliamentary group.
A seasoned diplomat, he was chief coordinator for advertising for president Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign, then his PR chief. Margelov was a consultant to Vladimir Putin’s electoral headquarters, and he was nominated by the latter to his current post as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia in 2001.
Margelov’s keenness to develop relations between the legislatures of Israel and Russia resulted in the establishment of the interparliamentary group in 2009, which has now met for a second time. According to Margelov, this is another proof of the growing closeness between two countries.
This year, Israel and Russia celebrated the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations and according to Margelov, although significant progress has been achieved, the enormous potential of relations is yet to be fulfilled.
He said the current visit, which included meetings with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, leaders of the opposition and top security officials at the Defense Ministry, Public Security Ministry and Mossad, has been very fruitful, paving the way for the upcoming visit of President Dmitry Medvedev on January 17.
“I can say that over time relations between the two countries have become increasingly more substantial and meaningful,” Margelov said. “Today it’s much more then the emotional affection of the ’90s, but a true multidimensional partnership.
We cooperate in many spheres: economics, politics and, of course, security. I hope that the planned visit of President Medvedev next month will give a positive impulse to this strategic partnership.”
Margelov was quick to address Israel’s No. 1 security concern – Iran.
“We don’t have illusions concerning the regime in Teheran,” he said, not hiding his concern with its nuclear ambitions, underlining both regional and global aspects.
In September, Medvedev signed an order banning the delivery of the S-300 air defense system and a host of other major arms to Iran as part of measures Russia is taking to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1929 of June 9, 2010, which adopted a fourth round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“The Russian position on Iran is well known,” Margelov said last week. “We supported the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council on Iran, and the president also decided to freeze the military and technical cooperation with the Islamic Republic, banning the sale of S-300 systems to Teheran. We don’t have any illusions concerning the Iranian regime.”
However, Margelov doesn’t hide his skepticism regarding economic sanctions.
“Sanctions alone will never work,” he said. “I’ve always been a pessimist concerning sanctions regimes, since we have Yugoslavia and Iraq with its oil-for-food program as negative examples. Usually the sanctions end up in corruption and smuggling activity. If they are not synchronized with continuous political pressure on the party under sanctions, they aren’t worth a dime.
“Also, any opportunity to get back to dialogue between the 5+1 negotiators and any chance to develop a political dialogue with Iran shouldn’t be missed. As I always say, in Eastern politics you play chess, not American football.”
When discussing security issues with Israeli officials, Margelov relies not only on analysis but on his personal experience in Sderot, which he visited a number of times.
“I know well what a live, unexploded Kassam rocket looks like,” he said.
At the same time, he doesn’t see any contradiction in engaging in a dialogue with all Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Russia has been involved in dialogue with the Islamist movement since it won the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in January 2006.
“I know that in Israel we are often criticized for our dialogue with Hamas and not only with Fatah,” he said. “It’s my sincere belief that a political party which won the elections held in the PA in 2006 should be engaged in such a dialogue; otherwise these elections shouldn’t have taken place. I monitored these elections myself on behalf of the parliamentary assembly of the European Council and still remember the astonishment of my European colleagues when they heard about the outcome.
However, in politics you need real actions, not illusions.”
During his current visit, Margelov also visited the PA areas, meeting with Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath and other officials.
Russia recently issued a call for an urgent meeting of Middle East Quartet members.
“Indeed we called on the members of Quartet to meet soon,” Margelov said. “It shouldn’t be meeting for the sake of a meeting, nor an act for the sake of the act, but a serious, meaningful discussion.
We need to discuss the current activity of the Obama administration in this regard, and to discuss the options and strategies for the revival of the peace process.
“As for Russia’s particular role, we are able and keen to initiate and
develop economic projects with the PA, create multiple work places and
drive young people into the camp of those who seek peace.”
An experienced Arabist who first mastered the language travelling with
his parents as a child through Arab world (Margelov’s father worked in
foreign intelligence) and graduated from the Institute of Asia and
Africa Countries in Moscow, he was appointed as Russia’s special envoy
in Sudan in December 2009.
Talking about the fragile situation in Sudan, which is heading for a
fateful moment, a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan
scheduled to take place on January 9, the senator also referred to the
many changes that the Middle East is currently experiencing.
“All the countries in the Middle Eastern region are going through significant change.
Turkey, Iraq... The latest statements of Iraqi Sunnis that they need
political autonomy just like the Kurds might indeed jeopardize the unity
of the country.
“I believe that the rearrangement of the Middle East would be very dangerous, it would be an unstoppable snow ball.
Needless to say, it could have a very negative effect on stability and
security of the whole region, including Israel. If it begins, the region
will live through extremely turbulent times.”