Middle East conference in Moscow may be postponed

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Andrei Murtazin) - Much has been written in the Russian media about the visit to Moscow by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last week, but little has been said about its results - possibly because they were not as impressive as Vladimir Putin's visit to Tripoli.

This was Abbas' fourth visit to Moscow since he became president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

He talked with everyone on his agenda, namely President Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials, and with some who were not, including Yevgeny Primakov, head of Russia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a former premier and foreign minister.

Yet, Primakov, a respected Russian Orientalist and an indisputable authority on Arab affairs, could not help Abbas. The Palestinian leader came to Moscow to discuss a Middle East conference expected to take place in June - Primakov is not connected to the conference.

The general idea of the conference is to bring everyone involved in the Middle Eastern conflict to the negotiating table, including the warring Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, Syria, Lebanon, the United States and Israel.

Moscow is ready to provide financial assistance to Palestine.

This year, as last year, Russia transferred $10 million into PNA accounts. According to the business newspaper Kommersant, 100 Palestinian security officers, including Abbas's bodyguards, have received special training in Russia, which will also present two newly modernized Mi-8AMT transport helicopters, worth $18 million each, to the PNA leadership.

Helicopters working for Russia's Emergencies Ministry have delivered another batch of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Russia is also negotiating with Israel for the delivery of 70 armored personnel carriers for the Palestinian police, also free of charge.

Mahmoud Abbas should be satisfied with this. The Kremlin, however, is less happy. It has failed to settle a date for the Middle East conference in Moscow, and it is beginning to look like it will have to be postponed.

Russia is developing bilateral relations with many Arab countries, and is ready to write off their Soviet era debts in exchange for contracts, deliver arms and civilian goods, and promote cooperation in power generation and other sectors.

A recent example is Putin's visit to Libya. Trade is also booming with Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq.

At the same time, Moscow, like Washington, has so far failed to convince the Arab countries and Israel to discuss a comprehensive solution to the Middle East problem.

Perhaps paradoxically, it has become more difficult for Moscow to fight for peace in the Middle East in a multipolar world free of bloc confrontation, than during the Cold War. One of the main stumbling blocs is the refusal of the U.S. and Israel to hold talks with Hamas or Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Putin's diplomacy is necessarily different from the policies of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Unlike the U.S.S.R., modern Russia does not threaten to use military force against the U.S. and Israel in order to protect Syria, Iraq or Palestine. That is a disillusioning fact for many Arabs.

Moscow's traditional allies, Syria and Palestine, have long been playing their own game in the Middle East.

Syria demands that the conference must discuss the issue of the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967, while Abbas, the United States and Israel insist that Hamas must not attend the talks.

Egypt, another key regional player, has proposed holding an alternative summit at its resort city of Sharm El Sheikh, to which Russia, a co-chairman of the Middle East process, has not been invited.

If this weren't enough, the United States and Israel see little reason for holding the conference at all, citing the lack of progress at the Annapolis conference last November.

Their sentiments are shared by Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, who said at the Arab League summit in Damask last March: "Our blood and our language are one, but nothing can unite us. ...We hate each other, we wish ill of each other and our intelligence services conspire against each other. We are our own enemy."

He spoke bitterly, but largely correctly. Only 10 out of the 22 Arab leaders attended the Damascus summit, while many countries only sent minor ministers.

This is not an encouraging background for convening a Middle East conference. Moscow has appealed to the warring sides to accept compromises and make concessions, but this is a voice in wilderness. The differences are too serious for delegates from the United States, Israel, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon to sit down at the same table, and the situation is unlikely to improve by June.

In the absence of the necessary political conditions for a constructive dialogue, the Moscow conference will most likely be postponed. Moscow does not need a conference merely for the sake of appearances.

Money rules the world, in the East and the West alike. At Camp David in 1978, the United States convinced Israel and Egypt to make up by promising $3.5 billion in annual subsidies to Israel for the purchase of U.S.-made weapons and $1.5 billion in annual subsidies to Egypt (later increased to $2.2 billion).

In other words, maintaining relative peace in the Middle East annually costs the United States $5.5 billion. But this financing scheme can hardly be extended to Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, because the United States, the European Union and Russia cannot give out this kind of money.

The Middle East quartet, comprising Russia, the U.S., the UN and the EU, is searching for other ways to restore peace in the region. That means that the peace process initiated at the Madrid conference in 1991 is not over.

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

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