By Ramzy Baroud
Israeli anxiety was palpable when it was reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not contacted by new American President Joe Biden in the days following the latter’s inauguration. While much is being read into Biden’s decision, including Washington’s lack of enthusiasm to return to the “peace process,” Russia is generating much attention as a possible alternative to the US by hosting Palestinian dialogue and conversing with the leaders of the various Palestinian political groups.
A political shift appears to be taking place on both fronts: The US away from the region and Russia back to it. If this trend continues, it could be only a matter of time before a major paradigm shift occurs.
The Israelis are rightly worried about the potential loss of the unconditional support of their American benefactors. “There are 195 countries in the world… Biden has not called 188 of them,” Herb Keinon wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Feb. 2. “Only in Israel, however, are people fretting about what it means that he has not yet phoned.”
But the concern is justified, as Israel has been designated Washington’s most prominent ally for many years, both in the Middle East and globally.
It is unclear whether the relegation of Netanyahu during Biden’s early days in office is an indicator that Israel — in fact, the entire region — is no longer an American priority or a warning message to Netanyahu, who rallied for years in support of the Republican administration of Donald Trump.
Thanks to Netanyahu’s foreign policy miscalculations, support for Israel has, in recent years, become a partisan issue in US politics. While the overwhelming majority of Republicans support Israel, only a minority of Democrats sympathize with the country.
Although it is true that Netanyahu’s behavior in recent years has earned him special status within the Republican ranks, thus making him a persona non grata among Democrats, it is equally true that the US seems to be divesting from the Middle East altogether. According to Politico, the Biden administration has already overseen a major restructuring of the US National Security Council, flipping the previous structure, “where the Middle East directorate was much bigger than it is now and the Asia portfolio was managed by a handful of more junior staffers.”
However, it is not only Washington that is shifting its geostrategic center of gravity. Russia, too, is undergoing a major restructuring of its foreign policy priorities. While Washington is retreating from the Middle East, Moscow is cementing its presence in the region. Moscow’s shift began with its calculated involvement in the Syrian conflict from 2015. It is now offering itself as a political partner and a more balanced mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.
Like the US, Russia might not necessarily see its political involvement as a precursor to actually ending the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though it insists, unlike Washington, on the centrality of international law and UN resolutions in the quest for a just peace. Writing in the Polish Institute of International Affairs last year, Michal Wojnarowicz argued that Russia’s involvement in Palestine and Israel is consistent with its overall strategy in the Middle East, which is aimed at building “a network of influence among regional actors and (boosting) its image as an attractive political partner.”
A variation of this view was offered in the New York Times in 2016, when Moscow first began working to translate its strategic gains in Syria to political capital throughout the region. It was at this time that the US-sponsored peace process had reached a dead end, giving Russia the opportunity to float the idea of Moscow-sponsored talks between Israel and Palestine. “Russia’s new-found Middle East peace push, part of President Vladimir V. Putin’s reinsertion of Moscow into the region in a profound way after years of retreat, seems to be about everything but finding peace in the Middle East,” it was argued in an op-ed. “Instead, it is about Moscow’s ambitions and competition with Washington.”
Netanyahu rejected the Russian overture in the hope that a Republican administration would meet all of Israel’s demands without making any concessions. However, the Palestinians, including relatively isolated movements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, found in Moscow a welcoming environment and, crucially, an international power that was able to balance out the US’ blind support for Israel.
Despite Israel’s refusal to engage with the Palestinians under Russian auspices, many Palestinian delegations visited Moscow, culminating in January 2017 in a political breakthrough when rival factions Fatah, Hamas and others held serious talks in the hope of bridging their differences. Although the talks did not bring about Palestinian unity, they served as Russia’s political debut in a conflict that had previously fallen squarely within the American geopolitical space.
Since then, Russia has remained very involved through well-structured efforts championed by special envoy Mikhail Bogdanov. These efforts have been channeled through three areas: Intra-Palestinian dialogue, Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and, of late, talks within Fatah. The last of these is especially indicative of the nature of Moscow’s involvement in the multi-layered conflicts at work in the region.
Even though the Palestinian groups are currently finalizing their previous agreements in Cairo, top officials continue to coordinate their actions with Moscow and Bogdanov personally.
Russia’s credibility among Palestinian groups is boosted by similar credibility among ordinary Palestinians, especially as it emerged last month that they will soon be receiving the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus disease vaccine. Moreover, while Washington has publicly declared that it will not roll back any of Trump’s actions in favor of Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is pushing for an international peace conference on Palestine to be held in the coming months.
The US now has no other option but to slowly retreat from its previous commitment to the peace process — and the region as a whole. As is often the case, any American retreat means a potential opening for Russia, which is now laying claim to the role of peace broker, a seismic change that many Palestinians are welcoming.