Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry turned its attention to the East. Shortly after he returned to Moscow after visiting Ulan Bator and Beijing, Igor Ivanov received a guest from the Middle East, the head of the foreign affairs department of the Palestinian National Authority, Naabil Shaath. This visit remains at the centre of the public's attention.
At the very start of their talks, the Russian minister told his Palestinian colleague that Moscow was concerned about how the Road Map plan for the Israeli-Palestinian settlement was being implemented. The Palestinian guest, in turn, said that his nation was seriously interested in resuming the peace negotiations.
It is an open secret that the Road Map plan drawn up by the Middle East quartet (Russia, the US, UN and EU) has stalled in the past few months. Therefore, its initiators, including Moscow, believe that the process needs to be kick-started.
During his meeting with Nabil Shaath, Ivanov said that his ministry was in active negotiations with the other members of the quartet and would soon discuss the Middle East with the French, Italian and German foreign ministers and the US secretary of state.
Observers have pointed to Russia's growing role in the Middle East settlement in the past few months. Until recently, the US clearly dominated the process, but now the situation is changing. Some observers say that Washington has to concentrate more on the problems caused by its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and often has no time or strength left for the complicated Israel-Palestine confrontation. But of course, the Americans have not completely shunned the Road Map. This can be seen in the recent exchange of opinions on the Israel-Palestine settlement between senior representatives of the Whitehouse administration and various officials from the Middle East. For instance, head of the Israeli premier's bureau Dov Weisglass recently met US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Washington to discuss the Road map's implementation.
Nonetheless, many experts point out that Russia's role in the complex diplomatic effort to find ways for the Middle East settlement is clearly increasing. This viewpoint was echoed by Palestinian Ambassador to Russia Khairi al-Oridi in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta timed for Nabil Shaath's visit to Moscow. He hailed the efforts of Russian diplomats to implement the Road Map. "We highly assess Russia's consistent position welcoming a comprehensive and just Middle East settlement in the interests of all sides," he said.
According to some reports, Israel is not against Moscow's increasing influence in the Middle East settlement, either. Some believe that the Israelis are becoming more annoyed with the Americans' patronising manner. Of course, the United States is the first ally for Israel, but the latter can now afford to make a certain diplomatic shift towards Russia in view of the current situation within the Middle East quartet. Besides, Israel now seems to understand that the cold war is history and that Moscow maintains a neutral approach to the Middle East confrontation and only seeks to help resolve the conflict.
In addition, former Soviet citizens now account for one-sixth of the Israeli population. And these voters are predominantly mainly pro-Russian. Therefore, they are more inclined to hail Moscow's more active role in the road map implementation.
But there is the possibility that some Israeli politicians were not very happy about Shaath's visit to Moscow. Shaath belongs to Yasser Arafat's inner circle. The latter can hardly be described as a favourite of Ariel Sharon's government, which dubs him an instigator of terror and urges the world to break off ties with him. According to some sources, Sharon's associates are certain that Arafat stands behind what such prominent Palestinian politicians as Nabil Shaath, Yasser Abed Rabbu, Saib Arikat and Ahmed Kurei say and do. The Israelis have even tried to press foreign guests, including the Middle East quartet, to avoid meeting Yasser Arafat. Ariel Sharon even refused to receive some of those who did not follow these recommendations. So far, however, there have been no cancelled meetings with foreign representatives who have close links with Arafat.
However, Moscow is certainly guided by its own interests and assessment of developments in the Middle East. The attempt to isolate Yasser Arafat from the Middle East settlement is seen in Russia as a mistake. Last summer, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met the Palestinian leader in his Mukata residence in Ramallah. That is when Shaath's visit to Moscow was agreed upon. The latter received a warm welcome in Moscow, and the results of his visit were highly applauded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, as usual.
At the end of the visit, the Palestinians clearly stated that the Road Map needed international assistance to be successful and that Russia played an essential role in the process as one of the plan's initiators and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.