In an interview with the influential Russian daily Izvestiya, the well-known “Orientalist” scholar and establishment figure, Vitaly Naumkin, has floated the startling idea that Moscow must play a role in resolving the Palestinian problem. He said, “Moscow has long urged for [organizing] a top-level meeting between Palestinians and Israelis in Russia, on a Moscow platform. It is necessary to turn Moscow into a venue for such talks.”
Naumkin explains that Moscow has unique credentials to kickstart peace talks, since it is a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council with an obligation to pursue the implementation of relevant UN resolutions on Palestine and is also a member of the Middle East Quartet. Alas, US obduracy has stalled the Quartet, while Washington is stonewalling by casting its veto in the Security Council. He lamented that the US is hobnobbing with extreme right-wing elements in Israel who are not even representative of Israeli opinion.
The idea of Russia acting as a mediator in talks on the Palestinian problem dates back to the Soviet era. It’s been a non-starter due to the West’s dogged determination to keep the Soviets out of the strategic Middle East region. But although Cold War has ended, any Russian attempt to highlight the Palestine problem as the core issue in the Middle East will run into strong headwinds from Tel Aviv and Washington.
So, why is Naumkin, a top establishment pundit (who heads the Russian Academy of Science’s hallowed Institute of Oriental Studies), wading into the whirlpool? In a manner of speaking, he is actually using an “objective co-relative” to clarify the real state of play in the Russian-Israeli ties.
In the interview, Naumkin dispels any notion that Russia and Israel are in any “strategic alliance.” He prefers to call it a “normal trust-based relationship,” which enables the two countries to “fight terror together” and maintain excellent economic ties. Period. Quintessentially, as he puts it, the two countries “no longer see each other as enemies.”
Naumkin points out that Israel’s stance on Ukraine is helpful insofar as it refuses to join western sanctions against Russia, and, secondly, Israel is in harmony with Russia as regards attitudes toward World War II and fascism. But does it mean that Moscow and Tel Aviv have identical stance on everything under the sun? For heaven’s sake, no!
What makes Naumkin’s remarks very interesting is not only his subtlety of mind but that he belongs to the great Soviet tradition of scholar-diplomats who are on the frontline of Russian foreign policy. Quite obviously, Naumkin has marked some distance between Russia and Israel at a complicated juncture when the self-serving western narrative would be that the two countries have struck a deal at the highest level of leadership regarding the future of Syria, leaving Iran out in the cold.
Moscow feels that poison is being injected into Russia’s complex equations with Tehran and Damascus. Who else but Naumkin could provide the perfect antidote? The heart of the matter is that Russia has substantially improved relations with most countries in the Middle East in recent years after a decade of limited cooperation through the first decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian diplomacy has shaken off the Soviet-era ideological baggage and is highly pragmatic. Thus, although Saudi Arabia and the UAE significantly contributed to the bleeding of the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had covertly fostered “jihadism” in Chechnya in the 1990s, the Kremlin today is eager to build relations with them. In fact, Saudi Arabia is Moscow’s strategic partner in the so-called “OPEC+ deal” aimed at stabilizing the world oil market.
Again, Qatar, which has been called the “Club Med for terrorists” and was a latent ally of Chechen rebels, is currently negotiating the purchase of Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defence system.
Moscow’s diplomacy aims to convey the impression to its Middle Eastern interlocutors – be it Israel, Jordan, Iran or Saudi Arabia – that Russia keeps its end of a mutually beneficial bargain. But if anyone adds mystique to the bargain and elevates it to a Faustian deal, Moscow may be left with no option but to bring it down to terra firma.
Plainly put, Naumkin, (who, interestingly enough, also happens to be Russia’s advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura) knows perfectly well what Russia is attempting in southern Syria – namely, to eliminate the remaining strongholds of terrorist groups ensconced in that region bordering Jordan and Israel. Indeed, if Israel could persuade Washington to shut down the base in Al-Tanf (which makes no sense from a military point of view anyway), it will help the overall Russian efforts. On the other hand, Israel has no reason to worry, because Iran does not intend to participate in the liberation of the provinces of Daara and Quneitra that straddle the Golan Heights.
Besides, it is no secret that Russia has nothing to do with Iran’s policy of resistance against Israel. But then, to put two and two together to shout and dance in jubilation that Russia is muzzling Iran is completely unnecessary – and can turn out to be counterproductive. Of course, if anyone tries to create confusion, Moscow will clarify. That is what Naumkin has ably done.