Palestinian and Libyan delegations left Moscow yesterday after causing quite a stir. The two delegations have nothing to do with each other: a representative of the Libyan opposition just happened to be in Moscow at the same time as a group of Palestinian leaders traveling as a single delegation for the first time in many years. Political scientists are wondering what Russia hopes to achieve with this flurry of Mideast diplomacy. To singlehandedly end the war in Libya? And surely Russia can't expect to wave a magic wand and create an independent Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, the importance of these contacts - cloaked in semi-secrecy though they were - should not be underestimated. The official announcement of the arrival of the delegates was made at the last minute, although foreign diplomats and journalists had found out about it in advance. They have been busy discussing the news and eagerly awaiting the results ever since.
Not like the olden days
The Palestinians were hidden away for a couple of days in the Moscow suburbs at the presidential administration's Snegiri resort in an effort to underscore the informal nature of their visit. Although the guests met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they came to Moscow on the invitation of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies and the State Fund for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education. Also, the delegation included Hamas leaders targeted by Israeli special forces, and it is easier to guarantee security outside the city limits.
I had a chance to speak with all the delegation members on the eve of their departure. My impression from these meetings was unequivocal - all the guests were very pleased with the trip.
Gray-haired Palestinian leaders recalled trips to the Soviet Union in their youth, during which they were given money, weapons and other forms of support. Some even took a break from the struggle in Black Sea resorts or received medical treatment in Kremlin clinics.
Moscow helped bring them together when they quarreled. Soviet diplomat Oleg Grinevsky remembers heated late night argument between Palestinian representatives, which sometimes ended with them chasing each other down the halls of government mansions, pistols drawn. But Soviet security guards kept an eye on them and ensured that there weren't any shoot-outs. If need be, senior comrades kept the Palestinians' bellicose attitude toward the Israelis in check at the request of American or even Israeli leaders. At that time, we had no direct contacts with Israel. Signals were sent through intermediaries.
"We used to come to Moscow two or three times a year," recalled Talal Naji, a high-ranking official in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, during his recent trip to Moscow. The PFLP-GC is considered to be more radical than most groups. Naji lost a hand and an eye while learning to use explosives at a training camp.
Russia still on the sidelines
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, visits to Moscow became much more infrequent. Russia has neither the ability nor the need to provide serious material aid to the Palestinians anymore. However, the absence of regular contacts has started affecting Russia's activity in the region. I was stunned when I heard a high-ranking Kremlin official say that "our ties with the Arabs have long been depersonalized" (meaning we don't need to meet the leaders of the various organizations and movements). His point was that Russia's goal in the region has been to secure lucrative contracts in Arab countries, and you only need to meet with high-ranking government officials for that.
Due to this blinkered view of the region, Russia was not only caught off guard by the Arab revolutions, it failed to rapidly adapt to the changing circumstances, unlike the United States and France. As a result, many of its contracts, worth billions of dollars, will be lost. If we want to expand bilateral contacts with Arab countries, we must be consistently involved in key political processes in the region, including the peace process, both at the government level and through NGOs, a resource untapped by Russia.
I followed the Palestinian visit to Moscow closely, and I saw that both the hosts and the guests were eager to create the impression that significant headway was made. One of the Russian organizers of these meetings said in return for anonymity that Russia "is seizing the initiative in the Mideast peace process from other mediators." This is wishful thinking. Russia is not seizing anything from anyone.
The Palestinians were also quick with the compliments. One of them joked that an appropriate slogan for these talks would be "Workers of the world pray!" - an allusion to the fact that, for the first time in decades, all Palestinian leaders, both from religious and left-wing socialist movements, traveled to Russia together. He added that, for all their differences, everyone's agreed on Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state (East Jerusalem, to be precise).
Pleasant talks in Moscow
The delegation was headed by Azzam al-Ahmad, a Fatah leader. He told me that Fatah and Hamas discussed political issues with each other and other parties for the first time after reconciling in early May. Previously, they only dealt with technical issues regarding the formation of a coalition government and next year's presidential and parliamentary elections during talks mediated by Egypt. This should probably be viewed as just another compliment to Russia.
Another result of the Moscow trip that was portrayed as a big step forward was the fact that in the final declaration Hamas agreed to borders of a Palestinian state based on the territories that the Arabs possessed before the war against Israel in June 1967 (as opposed to the much larger pre-1948 territories). However, in past interviews - including some that I conducted - Hamas leaders repeatedly made statements to this effect, so there is nothing new here.
The situation in the region leaves much to be desired. Results will be hard to come by. But it is significant that Russia has started paying more attention to the Middle East after a period of keeping the region and its politics at arm's length. It is important that such undertakings yield results, of course. Russia needs to create permanent mechanism aimed at boosting its presence in the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.