Russia waded into the dense diplomatic waters of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process this week. Moscow’s intervention came in the form of a proposed meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The move sought to reignite the dormant peace process by bringing the two leaders together for the first substantial meeting since 2010. The diplomatic back-and-forth has led to an agreement to meet ‘in principle’, although a date has not yet been set. If the meeting occurs, it would be the first significant step in the peace negotiations for six years. The agreement to meet comes after Abbas reportedly dropped his requirement for preconditions, which had included a settlement freeze and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Russia’s attempt to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement comes as President Vladimir Putin seeks to exploit the diplomatic vacuum left by President Barack Obama’s dwindling interest in the Middle East. Obama has openly spoken of his desire to reorient America’s foreign policy focus to Asia and his reluctance to get bogged down in another Middle East quagmire. Sensing an opportunity, Putin has sought to increase Russian influence in the region, most notably through intervention in Syria in favour of Bashar Al-Assad. Russia’s new intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be seen as part of this broader strategy, rather than as an isolated approach, and in this context it is notable that the Russian offer was announced in August by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt.
Nonetheless, Russia’s diplomatic intervention is a minor muscle flex, rather than a Middle East power-play. It remains highly unlikely that Russia will become a major player in the peace process any time soon. Russia’s alliance with Iran is a major obstacle to any serious intervention, as any Russian actions perceived as granting Israel legitimacy would constitute a red line for Iran’s theocrats. More broadly, Putin’s strategy for increasing Russian influence in the Middle East is unlikely to shift from its current focus on Egypt, Iran, and Syria, where the potential for strategic gain remains highest. Putin’s reach into the peace process is an opportunistic addition to, rather than a significant change of, Russia’s Middle East strategy.
Israel’s openness towards Russian patronage reflects two separate trends. The first is the distrust between Netanyahu and Obama, which has led to a cooling of American-Israeli relations. The second is the Syrian civil war raging on Israel’s border, where Russia is a major player. Both these factors, however, are short-term. The dampening of American-Israeli relations is likely to be a brief blip rather than a long-term trend. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton pledge to rekindle the traditional warmth between Jerusalem and Washington, although the Republican presidential candidate’s references to wishing to remain ‘neutral’ between Israel and the Palestinians and his hot-headed unpredictability suggest a Trump White House might end up leaving Netanyahu looking back wistfully on the halcyon days of the Obama administration The contingencies of the Syrian Civil War, meanwhile, are unlikely to persist beyond the medium-term future. Therefore, despite the proposed meeting in Moscow, the geopolitical backdrop to the conflict is unlikely to change significantly any time soon.