Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2012
Issue No. 1104
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Putin's masked pleasantries

Mixed reactions characterise Vladimir Putin's visit to Israel-Palestine, with Palestinians tired of empty words and Russia's support for Bashar Al-Assad against the Syrian people, writes Khaled Amayreh in Bethlehem

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The daughter of Thair Al-Balk mourns the death of her father, member of Hamas military wing Al-Qassam Brigades during his funeral in Jabalya, northern Gaza (photo: Reuters)

In a brief visit to Israel-occupied Palestine this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to reassert Russian influence in the region, especially in Israel where more than a million Russian immigrants live.

Putin received a warm welcome from his Israeli hosts who sought to influence the Russian leader's thinking with regard to the Iranian nuclear programme.

Israeli President Shimon Peres drew analogy between Russia's fierce resistance to Nazism during World War II and current efforts to stop Iran from enriching uranium and possibly possessing nuclear weapons.

"I am confident that under your leadership Russia will fulfil a key role in restoring security and peace," he said.

However, it seems the excessive commendations Putin received in Israel failed to change his mind on the basic issues.

He told Israeli leaders that he wouldn't advise them to carry out a hasty or rash strike on Iran since this would create more problems and complicate an already complicated situation.

Israel, which possesses a huge nuclear arsenal that includes 250-300 nuclear weapons, views Russia and China as "weak links" in the international front against Iran.

In his few and terse public remarks, the Russian president spoke in general terms about "changes in the region" and "the need to make peace".

"Once again, we see that friendship and warm relations between our people is more than words," Putin told Peres.

However, according to one Israeli newspaper, the warm handshakes and pleasantries that marked the visit hid a sharp division between the two countries on significant foreign policy issues, such as Iran and Syria.

Putin, who many observers argue has on his hands the innocent blood of many Syrians, thanks to his unwavering support for the Bashar Al-Assad regime, told an equally tainted Israeli president that Russia opposed the extermination of any people, including the Israeli people. (In 1996, Peres in his capacity as prime minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin ordered the Israeli army to commit a massacre in the village of Qana in southern Lebanon, murdering more than 100 women and children. He never apologised for the horrific carnage.)

Putin added that he was looking to make peace in the world and the region. "The region and the world are rapidly changing. We need to find ways to work together that will enable every one to live in peace," he said.

The Russian leader again spoke in general terms following a lengthy meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, saying it was important to resolve ancient conflicts, especially the Palestinian issue.

"We call on all sides to resume negotiations. It is the only way to solve this problem."

Russia is part of the International Quartet on Middle East Peace, which also includes the US, EU, and the United Nations.

On Monday, Putin was taken directly to Netanya where he participated in the dedication ceremony for a large memorial commemorating the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany.

For his part, Netanyahu asked Putin to make every possible effort to make sure that in the event of the collapse of the Syrian regime, Syria's purported chemical arsenal won't find its way into the wrong hands.

As to peace with the Palestinians, the Israeli premier said he was willing and ready to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at any time and in any place.

The latest phrase, often uttered by Israeli leaders, is widely thought to be a public relations ruse meant to divert attention from phenomenal Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, which many observers believe has effectively killed any remaining chances for pursuing a meaningful peace process based on the two-state solution formula.

In characteristic prevarication and verbal juggling, Netanyahu told Putin: "The key to peace is complex, but in the end it is very simple. Either President Abbas must come here or I must go to him, and I am willing for either of these possibilities to occur. However, we must begin to talk. I hope you will convey this message when you meet Abbas tomorrow."

The truth, however, is that Palestinian and Israeli leaders met numerous times over the years, but without making any real progress towards ending the Israeli occupation, which began in 1967. The main reason for this failure stems from Israel's recalcitrant refusal to give up the spoils of the 1967 war.

Abbas and other Palestinian leaders on Tuesday received Putin in the city of Bethlehem where a gigantic wall erected by Israel is throttling the town, giving it the air of a detention camp.

Putin told his Palestinian hosts that Russia was still supporting endeavours to establish a viable state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

"Russia has no problem recognising a Palestinian state," Putin told Abbas.

The Russian leader also praised Abbas for his "responsible" position in negotiations with Israel, an allusion to the Palestinian leader's refusal to resume stalled peace talks with Israel until the latter halts settlement expansion activities.

Abbas surprised Putin by announcing that the city of Bethlehem intended to name one of the town's streets after him. He was also awarded the Palestinian Authority (PA) Medal of Honour. The PA also refused to allow any demonstration against Putin, particularly protest against Russia's support and backing of the Assad regime. A solid majority of Palestinians are believed to identify with the Syrian revolution against the minority-Alawite regime in power.

Given Russia's clear complicity in the Syrian bloodbath, many Palestinians believe Putin stands to be condemned, not commended, for his alliance with the Assad regime.

However, for the Palestinian leadership, whatever happens in Syria must not interfere with the need to put Palestinian interests first.

It is unlikely that Putin's visit to occupied Bethlehem and occupied Jerusalem will have a far-reaching impact on the basic elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the United States has a virtual monopoly on the so-called peace process.

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