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(photo credit: AP)
Russia wants to "facilitate" talks between Israel and Syria and in the last few months has conveyed messages from Damascus to Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem, Moscow sees involvement in this track as a facilitator as one way of increasing its influence in the region.
Turkey has also played this role in recent months. But while the Turks are believed to have better personal contacts with the Syrians, the Russians - because of their arms sales to Syria and their overall status as a world power - are believed to have much more leverage with Damascus.
Israeli diplomatic officials said, for example, that Moscow was largely responsible for convincing Syria to attend last month's conference in Annapolis.
According to assessments in Jerusalem, the Russians are concerned about the Iran-Syrian-Hamas-Hizbullah axis that has created a common cause between Shi'ite and Sunni extremists and that could potentially create a serious problem in southern Russia.
As a result, Moscow has concluded that one way to deal with the situation is to lure Syria out of the Iranian orbit, something it feels could be possible were an agreement reached between Syria and Israel.
This explains a stepped-up Russian interest in facilitating dialogue between Jerusalem and Damascus.
At the same time, Russia has stepped back from reported plans to convene an international peace conference in Moscow that would not only deal with the Palestinian-Israeli issue, but also with the Syrian-Israeli track.
According to Israeli officials, the Russians are now talking about a much smaller-scale meeting some time in the spring.
Although Israel has not officially been informed by the Russians about what Moscow has in mind, the current assessment is that the Kremlin wants to convene a conference of "technical experts," meaning high-level Foreign Ministry officials or their equivalent, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian track.
The general idea would be to invite Israel, the Palestinians and members of the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and the UN - and possibly representatives from the Arab league.
Officials in Jerusalem said that for now everybody was waiting to see how things developed in the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before taking a firm stand on the matter.
While Israel has made clear that it does not think there is a need for additional international meetings at this time, it has not formally rejected the Russian proposal because there is no formal Russian proposal to reject.
The Russians are waiting to gauge the likely response to such a meeting before formally proposing anything, and Israel - according to diplomatic officials - was waiting to see what the proposal consisted of, and what the US and European positions were, before accepting or rejecting.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said recently that the meeting still needed to be coordinated and would depend on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The Russians, according to Israeli officials, see the conference as another way to increase their involvement in the region.
The officials also said that there had been no hints that Russia was linking US and Israeli acceptance to the conference to the issue of sanctions against Iran.
A third round of sanctions against Iran is expected to be taken up at the UN Security Council next month, with Russia expected to support only a small number of watered down steps. While Israel and the US are interested in stepping up sanctions, Russia continues to feel that such sanctions would be counterproductive.