Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia Angles for Bigger Role in Mideast ; Israel's Foreign Minister Will Visit Moscow, as Putin Tries to Reassert Influence

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia Angles for Bigger Role in Mideast ; Israel's Foreign Minister Will Visit Moscow, as Putin Tries to Reassert Influence

Article excerpt

In the maelstrom of diplomatic efforts to restart the Mideast peace process, it might have been easy to miss the "virtual summit" engineered by Russia.

No peace has been declared. The fighting hasn't stopped; nearly 300 people, mainly Palestinians, have been killed so far. Palestinians called for increased protests during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Monday. And the embattled Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is desperately fighting to form a new government that would head off early parliamentary elections.

But President Vladimir Putin is reasserting Russia's role in the peace process, in the vacuum left by the American failure so far to stem the carnage. Analysts say it is part of a broader campaign by Mr. Putin to elevate Russian influence globally - and to dispel a decade-long impression of post-cold-war weakness.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat visited the Kremlin on Friday, which yielded a surprise direct phone call to Mr. Barak.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is due to visit Moscow soon to "compare notes" with Putin.

The Russian initiative comes

at a time when both sides of the Middle East divide are running out of options. Barak's popularity is sagging, and Arafat is searching for political support for the renewal of the Palestinian intifadah, or uprising. For both leaders, Russia could prove to be a convenient new player.

For years, Russia's official role as "cosponsor" with the United States of the Arab-Israeli peace process received no more than lip service. Despite some grumblings in Washington about Russia's enhanced role, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright held a lengthy meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Vienna on Sunday.

Though the US has long been Israel's closest ally, as the sole remaining superpower, it also assumed the mantle of "honest broker" in the Mideast. But with the continuing violence, Russia - long a supporter of pro-Arab causes - is moving to fill the gap. "I don't say that Russia is the savior that comes with Excalibur to save the day," says Alexei Pushkov, a member of the Presidential Foreign Policy Council. "But there is a vacuum now.... Nobody is there, and violence is escalating."

"The Americans are irritated because [the Mideast peace process] was a success for several years, and all of a sudden it goes down, and the Russians are there," says Mr. Pushkov. "The US should understand: The Russians are only there because the Americans failed. It's not anti-American, but it's a comeback of active diplomacy."

Russia backs a Palestinian proposal to send 2,000 UN observers to the occupied territories, but says it is senseless to impose such a force if Israel continues to reject it.

Russia may be able to help, Pushkov says, but it is not moving to take over as chief mediator - and couldn't force either side to compromise on strategic differences, such as the status of Jerusalem, which scuppered American efforts. …

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