'Moscow to prepare Mideast parley'

Russian envoy tells 'Post' preparatory talks to determine parameters will begin in next few months.

barak Saltanov  248.88 (photo credit: Defense Ministry [file])
barak Saltanov 248.88
(photo credit: Defense Ministry [file])
Russia hopes to begin holding preparatory talks "in the next few months" with key regional and international players to determine the parameters of a Middle East peace conference it hopes to hold in Moscow, Russia's special Middle East envoy Alexander Saltanov told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. This conference, said Saltanov, who has been in Israel since Monday evening as part of a regional tour that took him to Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, "needed to be prepared thoroughly, properly, with an elaborate agenda, with the determination of the participants, and with at least a prognosis of what the results will be." The conference, which has been discussed since the Annapolis Conference in 2007, would deal not only with the Israeli-Palestinian track, but also with the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese tracks, as well as with regional economic issues, he said. Both Israel and the US recently dropped objections to the conference, if it is properly planned, and there is some speculation it might even be a venue for President Barack Obama to put forward a detailed plan for a regional agreement. Others have maintained that the PA, which has so far refused to engage in political negotiations with the Netanyahu government until it declares a settlement freeze, may need such a conference as an umbrella to restart talks with Israel. Saltanov said this forum was "needed to help restart, or make a new impetus for the resumption of negotiations on all tracks." It was premature to say who would be invited to the conference, he said. While the US and Russia are presently at odds over policy in Georgia, in Ukraine and regarding missile defense systems in Europe, the conversation with Saltanov revealed a large degree of agreement with the Washington on diplomatic policy here. Saltanov said the Middle East was one of the topics discussed with Obama in his recent visit to Russia. Like US administration officials, Saltanov called for a settlement freeze, or at least an agreement on construction in the settlements between the US and Israel that would be accepted in the Arab world, as well as gestures toward acceptance of Israel by the Arab states. At the same time, neither of these should be preconditions to negotiations, he said. The Russian envoy, who held talks in Ramallah on Wednesday with the PA leadership, is scheduled to meet with National Security Council head Uzi Arad on Thursday, and possibly with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He has already met with President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and opposition head Tzipi Livni. Prior to coming to Israel, Saltanov went to Amman and Damascus, where in addition to meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, he also met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. Russia is one of the few countries that maintains contact with Hamas, something that has irritated Jerusalem over the years. "One important thing must be understood," Saltanov said. "These contacts are not directed against anybody. Quite the opposite, they serve to improve the atmosphere." The Russian envoy did not directly answer when asked whether his country's contacts with Hamas had altered the organization's behavior in any way. Regarding the possibility of renewing Israeli-Syrian diplomatic talks, Saltanov said he was told in Damascus that Syria was ready to renew talks with Israel, "but it would be clear that one of the main topics of the negotiations would be the Golan Heights issue and exactly the conditions for withdrawal to the 1967 lines." Netanyahu, according to sources in his office, said he was willing to hold direct negotiations with the Syrians without any preconditions. Meanwhile, government sources downplayed the importance Wednesday of a visit to Syria by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, who reportedly is interested in restarting Israeli-Syrian talks through Turkish mediators. One Israeli government source, however, said that Erdogan - who was acerbic in his criticism of Israel during and immediately after Operation Cast Lead in January - had lost the trust of the Israeli leadership, and was no longer perceived as an "honest broker." Furthermore, it seemed as if the Syrians were more interested at this time in US, rather than Turkish, involvement in the talks, to enhance their standing with Washington. In a related development, Ambassador to the US Michael Oren said the disagreement between America and Israel on the settlement issue would be resolved soon. In an interview with Israel Radio on Wednesday, Oren claimed there was neither confrontation nor tension between the two countries. It was Oren's first interview since he presented his credentials to Obama on Monday. Oren said he told Obama at the presentation ceremony that "as a grandson of European immigrants who found refuge in America in the 1920s, as a son of a fighter who fought in World War II, as someone who was educated in American universities, I am grateful to represent Israel, a country dear to me, to the country of my birth, the United States." Oren continued, "As a historian, I have researched the long history of the US-Israel relationship and the history of the idea of Zionism vis-a-vis the US. I told the president that he represents a continuation of the long line of US presidents from John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, Harry Truman who supported the idea of the Jewish state. I would be happy to be of service to President Obama in the continuation of this legacy." Regarding the recent tension on the settlement issue, Oren said, "I know that there were many disagreements, that there were tensions, for example the Suez crisis in 1956, when [US president Dwight] Eisenhower threatened Israel with sanctions, in the 1980s with [US president Ronald] Reagan on the sale of AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia, with [US president George] Bush Sr. on loan guarantees to build Jewish settlements. So there were disagreements. "Here, we are talking about a very specific disagreement. There is a willingness on the part of the administration to resolve this. And I know as ambassador that the spectrum of constant contact is massive. We do not feel tension. There is no breakdown in the relationship," said Oren. On a future Obama visit to Israel, Oren said, "Obama was quoted as saying to Jewish leaders that he intends to visit Israel soon. There is no specific date." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.