Gov't sources: Russia set on Mideast parley

Say Moscow is determined to hold conference whether Israel wants it or not.

Olmert Lavrov 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [file])
Olmert Lavrov 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [file])
Russia is determined to go ahead with an international Middle East conference in Moscow in June whether Israel likes it or not, government sources told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, summing up Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit here last week. The sources characterized Lavrov's one-day visit last Thursday as "nasty," saying the Russian minister was agitated throughout his meetings with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres. He was, the sources said, in a slightly better mood during his talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. According to the sources, Russia's determination to go ahead with the conference - despite a decidedly cool, though officially noncommittal, reception to the idea from both Israel and the US - stemmed from Moscow's assessment that it desperately needed to increase its involvement in the Middle East and "make its mark" in the region. The reason the Kremlin wanted to get more involved right now, according to the officials in Jerusalem, was not because of a fear they were being outmaneuvered in the region by the US, but rather because Moscow felt it was losing ground to Iran. According to the government sources, Moscow viewed Hamas's takeover of Gaza as benefiting Iran, Hizbullah's strong position in Lebanon as strengthening Iran, and the situation in Iraq as playing into Iran's hands. As a result, Moscow wants to dramatically increase its role and influence in the region. "They are afraid of Iran's strides here," one official said. According to the source, a nuclear cooperation deal Russia signed with Egypt during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Russia on Tuesday was also aimed at gaining influence in the region. Moscow, according to Israeli officials, saw arms sales and nuclear technology as a way to once again assert its presence and gain leverage in the Middle East, as it had during the period of the Soviet Union. Israel was noncommittal to the conference idea throughout Lavrov's visit, with Olmert refraining from publicly coming out either for or against the proposal. The sense in Jerusalem is that if what is planned is an international conference along the lines of the Annapolis Conference, where other Arab countries would reaffirm support for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, then that is something Israel could go along with, although not with great enthusiasm. If, however, the idea was to hold Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations in Moscow, that is something Jerusalem was not keen on. In general, Israel believes that an international conference is unnecessary at a time when bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are taking place. Nevertheless, while Israel has adopted a decidedly unenthusiastic tone toward Russia's increasing assertiveness in the region, Russia's interest in blocking Iran's march in the Middle East is very compatible with Israel's overall interests. For this reason, there may be an inclination in Jerusalem to go ahead with the international conference, even though it is wary of the idea. "For the Russians, we are just a small pawn in the greater game," one government source said. "They are going to go ahead with the conference no matter what we say, knowing we will have no choice in the end but to go along." Lavrov, speaking to the press last Thursday night after meeting with Livni, said the agenda of the Moscow conference "will be very simple. There were the accords adopted in Annapolis; everybody supported them. Let us reaffirm that support and stimulate the parties toward their effective realization." Regarding reports that Lavrov told Syrian President Bashar Assad that the Golan Heights would be an issue at the proposed Moscow meeting, officials in Jerusalem said the Russians knew Israel was opposed to a "photo-opportunity" with the Syrians, and that if the Syrians were indeed interested in negotiations, they knew what they had to do. Israel has made clear that Syria would have to stop supporting Hizbullah and Hamas, kick the terrorist organizations out of Damascus, and pull away from its cozy embrace with Iran for there to be a possible peace deal. "The Russians understand our position on this," one government official said. The official said Lavrov's "testiness" while here may have had something to do with his own uncertainty over whether he would continue on as Russia's foreign minister when Dmitry Medvedev takes over from President Vladimir Putin in May.