Russia Seeks Political Mileage From Middle East

Russia's recent efforts to step up its role in the Middle East give it political kudos and a chance for Israelis and Palestinians to put their hopes in an arbiter other than the United States, analysts said Monday.

But they added that Russia's role was likely to be of psychological value rather than containing any real substance, and remained sceptical of finding a solution to the conflict.

"I think Russia's position is rather symbolic, but it is still significant. It is important for Russia to show that it can succeed where the United States failed," Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky told Reuters.

Russia is co-sponsor of the tattered Middle East peace process along with the United States, but had played a muted role until recently. Moscow did not participate in the emergency Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt last month.

But Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has toured the region twice since violence flared in September and both Israelis and Palestinians have called on Russia to take a more active role.

"Israel and the Palestinians had put all their eggs in one basket (the United States) and now they see the peace process is in shambles," said Sergei Karaganov, deputy director of the Institute of Europe in Moscow.

"They are looking for another possibility (in Russia), so we should be quite cynical about it," he said.

Last week, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat came to Moscow at his own request to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin ways to end bloodshed in the region. At least 281 people have died in the latest violence, mostly Palestinians.

And Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is due to visit Russia this week.

Russia's First Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Avdeyev, who was at the talks with Arafat, said then that Russia was in the favourable position being able to win trust from both sides.

"We must try to use Russia's unique situation as a friend of the Arabs and a country with a broad and trusting dialogue with the Israelis to persuade both sides to stop confrontation and move towards a Palestinian-Israeli peace," he said.



RUSSIA "TRYING TO SIT BETWEEN TWO CHAIRS"

Sergei Strokan, head of the foreign department at Itogi weekly magazine, was more sceptical about this "unique position". "Russia is trying to sit between two chairs and that is not very comfortable," he said.

The Soviet Union traditionally supported Palestinians and Arabs over Israelis, but since the collapse of communism a decade ago ties have improved with Israel, partly due to the emigration of Russian Jews there.

But Russian diplomatic activity in the Middle East has not exclusively been focused on Israelis and Palestinians.

Moscow has also actively been courting ties with Iran and Iraq -- both arch-foes of Israel.

Russia said last week it was backing out of a deal with the United States on curtailing conventional arms sales to Iran due to positive changes in Iran and U.S. violations of the deal.

"It's very difficult to pretend to play a positive role in the peace process and to arm Iran as well," Piontkovsky said.

And Russia has played a major role in seeking to lift U.N. sanctions on Iraq while trying to persuade Baghdad to cooperate with the United Nations in allowing inspectors to complete checks into whether it holds weapons of mass destruction.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz will visit Moscow later this week for talks with senior officials.



DIFFERENT APPROACH NEEDED FOR PEACE

Analysts said the latest collapse in peace efforts showed that a different approach was needed in the Middle East.

"We need a multilateral solution and I see Russia being one of the guarantors of that process when it happens, with others being the United States and the European Union," Karaganov said.

Ivanov has said international observers could be useful in the region and Interfax quoted Putin saying Monday there was a need for strengthening "international monitoring bases" in the Middle East.

But Piontkovsky said he remained sceptical about the prospects for peace.

"America has invested enormous resources in the peace process and it failed because of the fundamental reason that the Arabs and Israelis hate each other too much."