By HERB KEINON
In a luxury hotel at Suweima, on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea, the Russians held a "Track II" conference this week designed to send a clear message to the Arab world: "We are back."
The conference, covered widely in the Arab world but hardly at all in Israel, took place just weeks after the re-launch - after an absence of some 18 years - of an Arabic version of the Moscow News. It also comes at a time of diplomatic stagnation in the Middle East that has led to increased calls from many quarters - particularly the Palestinians and the EU - for various actors in the international community to step in and impose a solution on the parties.
Russia, obviously, wants to be one of these actors. Hence the two-day conference, part of the Valdai Discussion Club, put on jointly by the Ria Novosti, the Russian News and Information Agency funded by the government, and the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, the equivalent to the Council on Foreign relations in the US.
The organizers invited a slew of Mideast experts from Russia and the region - including Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the "State of Palestine," Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, with a couple of people from the UK, US and France thrown in for good measure - to discuss whether a comprehensive settlement is possible in the Middle East by 2020.
The hope of the conference, said Sergei Karaganov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy at its outset, was to "generate fresh ideas." Forget about it. The real agenda, it seems, was to implant in the Arab public a sense that Russia has returned to the region and is a player.
Some 50 Arab media outlets covered the conference, according to its organizers, and Ria Novosti quoted Al Jazeera as saying, "This is perhaps the first large-scale conference on the Middle East that Russia has organized in recent years."
Having so much Arab press there, from Al Jazeera to Hizbullah's Al Manar, may have been good for raising Russia's profile, but it essentially blocked any chance of a real or substantial discussion.
For once the cameras started to roll, the Arab participants - at least those who were willing to tolerate the presence of a small Israeli delegation and did not back out at the last minute like the delegates from Iran and Bahrain - were grandstanding for their home audiences, competing with themselves about whose tone could be more strident, angry and uncompromising on Israel.
And it wasn't only the Arabs. Alexei Vasilyev, director of the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the time had come for the region to have a "collective solution imposed on it." He added that the solution he advocated was a one-state one.
All of which led Maj.-Gen (res.) Yaakov Amidror - one of the Israeli delegation that also included Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University - to comment during the conference's opening session that if the participants, including the Russians, wondered why Israel never wanted to attend international peace conferences like the much touted and proposed Moscow Conference, all they needed to do was look around the room and hear themselves talk.
"If you think the Israelis are stupid enough to go to places where all are against us, you have to change all your attitudes," Amidror said with characteristic candor. There was nothing new in the proceedings, he said, just the "same old slogans."
ISRAEL, HOWEVER, would do well to pay close attention to at least one of these slogans, because it is being heard again and again, and is gaining traction: That there is the need for a more international approach to the conflict. According to this narrative, one also adhered to by the Israeli Left which Baskin represented, since it was obvious that the parties themselves could not reach an agreement, outside actors were needed to come and actively push them there.
This is a theme becoming increasingly dominant in discussion about the Middle East, especially at a time when the Obama administration's initial thrust into the area has hit a wall.
This theme was evident in the Swedish effort earlier this month to pass a EU resolution that would have essentially declared that a solution to the Jerusalem question would necessitate dividing the city, with east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
The theme was repeated when the new EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, in her maiden address to the European parliament last week, called for a much stronger role for the Quartet, made up of the US, EU, Russia and the UN.
The theme can also be seen as the main reason why the Palestinians continue to refuse to go to negotiations, holding out the hope that if they don't, the world will eventually step in and dictate a solution.
Just listen to what leading Palestinian officials are saying. Nimer Hammad, PA President Mahmoud Abbas' political adviser, said at the conference that the idea that both sides could solve the conflict "has no basis."
"It is very difficult at this stage to reach a settlement," he said. "There is an Israeli government that talks about negotiations, but is changing the situation on the ground."
The Palestinians, he said, don't believe negotiations will lead to a solution, and that the international community must instead play a central role.
The international community must get involved, he stressed, and not just the US, which he intimated could not be trusted as an honest broker because of the "powerful Jewish lobby."
"What is required is real international participation, all partners of the Quartet. Israel can't say it doesn't want international participation - leave us alone to solve the conflict."
Hammad wants to see the convening as soon as possible of the Moscow Conference, originally conceived as a follow up to the Annapolis conference, which would provide an international framework for negotiations.
"If both sides are not able to solve the conflict then the international community has to do so, because this really affects the stability around the world," he said.
And Hammad's call is not falling on deaf ears. Russia, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, has not abandoned the idea of holding the conference.
"We expect that some steps, which are currently being devised by us and our American partners, and the other Quartet partners, will open possibilities for the restart of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, and correspondingly, create favorable conditions for the convocation of the Middle East conference," Saltanov said, adding that the conference could "help really push the Mideast settlement process."
This push is likely to come in the form of the Quartet putting forward a framework agreement that would serve as the basis for negotiations. This idea was articulated by Yevgeny Primakov, one of the leading Middle East authorities in Russia who has served variously as the country's prime minster, former minister and head of its intelligence agency. Primakov said that the unsettled conflicts in the Middle East produce terrorism and fundamentalism, threatening the entire world.
As a result, he said, it is incumbent for the world to get involved and break the deadlock. He called for the Quartet to work on a "framework document" dealing with all the parameters of the issues, and then the establishment of a "monitoring process" to monitor Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on this framework, and the implementation of their obligations under the agreements.
"The framework format of the Quartet would serve as the basis for the negotiations which should be limited in time," he said.
Primakov laid out what he felt should be the parameters of the framework: The creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with agreed upon alterations; the refugee issue to be solved through compensation payments and repatriation to a future Palestinian state, albeit with an Israeli agreement to take in a certain "quotas;" and Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
"Syria must be included in the process or else Syria will move even closer to Iran," he added. "Syria must be included and our Israeli colleagues must understand this."
What is more important for Primakov's Israeli colleagues to understand, however, is that while his thinking about "frameworks" and "monitoring mechanisms," may not be formal Russian policy yet, it is a strong trend, and not only in Russia, but in the EU as well.
Diplomatic history in this region teaches that in the absence of any real movement in the political process, other actors will step in and try to fill the vacuum by imposing their own solutions to the conflict. The Russian-sponsored conference in Jordan was a signal that these efforts are once again picking up speed. Israel would ignore these signals at its own peril.
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