Bush borrows a page from Putin’s Middle East playbook

Bush borrows a page from Putin’s Middle East playbook

19:22 | 17/ 07/ 2007

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) – For everything there is a season, we have been told. Nowhere is that more true than in the Middle East. George W. Bush should therefore be commended for borrowing the idea of holding a Middle East peace conference from Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president first made the proposal over two years ago, but the time was not quite right. The U.S. president, it seems, has resurrected Putin’s idea in a last ditch effort to keep his own Middle Eastern policy afloat.

He called on all “countries in the region that support a two-state solution to the long Israeli-Palestinian standoff” to gather in the autumn for a conference “headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.”

The call came on July 16, shortly before a ministerial meeting of Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations-the members of the Middle East “quartet”-to be held in Lisbon on July 19. Initially scheduled for the end of June, the meeting was put off after Hamas took over Gaza.

Instead of quickly coming up with a new strategy to reflect the changes on the ground, some of the participants-mainly the United States-chose to take their time and work out their own course of action. They eventually decided to strengthen their support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leaving Hamas, which they call a terrorist organization, in isolation.

Israel is pursuing a similar policy. All this is meant to show Palestinians the benefits of renouncing terrorism. The peace conference is another part of this strategy, since Abbas will never gain the upper hand over Hamas militants without progress towards Palestinian statehood.

It is hard to come up with objections to the idea. As early as April 2005, Putin proposed holding a conference in Moscow with Russian diplomats as mediators. The meeting was to evaluate new regional developments brought about by Israel’s scheduled pull-out of the Gaza Strip in summer 2005. Prospects for an all-round Arab-Israeli settlement based on Arab League initiatives were also to have had a prominent place on the agenda.

The Arab world welcomed the Russian idea, but Israel turned it down. That was understandable-according to the plan, the conference would have confirmed agreements on a Palestinian state with temporary borders and launched a discussion on terms for a final settlement. Israel was afraid it would be forced into making premature concessions. Now, it approves of a similar idea coming from President Bush because it fits into the Israeli plan for dialogue with Abbas. Israeli authorities wish they had given him aid two years ago, when he won the Palestinian presidency. But how far will Israel go, considering the small difference between the demands of Fatah and Hamas?

Palestine might have avoided its current dramatic split if President Putin’s conference idea had received the attention it deserved. If the electorate had been sure Abbas would lead the nation to peace, Hamas would not have won the 2006 parliamentary poll that led to violent confrontation and brought radical Islamists to power in Gaza.

Better late than never is the only thing we can say about the peace conference. But then, to help Fatah and Hamas reconcile their differences is the last thing the United States wants, while peace is hardly possible with a conflict raging in Palestine. President Bush’s idea may be a desperate attempt to save his Middle East policy after he promised to settle the conflict back in 2002 and later shifted his efforts to Iraq, making a mess of everything.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s stance at the beginning of July-that is, before Bush’s call for a conference. “Russia supports realistic ideas for normalizing the situation, mainly those concerning the humanitarian situation in Gaza, in the broader context of reviving Palestinian unity, which is essential for resuming the regional peace process.” The minister’s words are fully applicable to the conference plan.

Russia has some time before the autumn during which it can take part in elaborating on the American idea, however frustrating it might be for Moscow that its own similar, and earlier, idea was buried. But then, Russia, remembering the most important teaching of communism, prefers the common good to its own personal ambitions, a principle it has demonstrated repeatedly in its efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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