Israeli anxiety was palpable when it was reported that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was not contacted by new US President Joe Biden for days after the latter’s inauguration. While much is being read into Biden’s decision, including Washington’s lack of enthusiasm to return to the “peace process”, Moscow is attracting attention as a possible alternative to the US by hosting internal Palestinian dialogue and speaking with leaders of Palestinian political groups.
A political shift is clearly taking place on both fronts: the US is moving away from the Middle East, and Russia is easing itself back in. If this trend continues, it could only be a matter of time before a major paradigm shift occurs.
The Israelis are rightly worried at the potential loss of the unconditional support of their American benefactors. “There are 195 countries in the world, and… Biden has not contacted 188 of them,” Herb Keinon wrote in the Jerusalem Post on 2 February, “but only in Israel, people are concerned about the significance of this delay.”
The concern is justified. After all, Israel has been Washington’s most prominent ally for many years, both in the Middle East and globally.
It is unclear whether the relegation of Netanyahu during Biden’s early days in office is an indicator that Israel — in fact, the entire region — is no longer an American priority, or simply a warning message to Netanyahu who rallied for four years in support of the Republican administration of Donald Trump.
Thanks to Netanyahu’s foreign policy miscalculation, support for Israel has, in recent years, become an unprecedented partisan issue in US politics. While the overwhelming majority of Republicans support Israel, only a minority of Democrats sympathise with the state, as recent public opinion polls revealed.
While it is true that Netanyahu’s behaviour in recent years earned him special status within Republican ranks, thus making him persona non grata among Democrats, it is equally true that the US seems to be divesting from the Middle East altogether.
According to Politico, reporting on the Biden administration’s initial days in office, a major restructuring has already taken place among the staff of the US National Security Council. This has, apparently, flipped the previous structure “where the Middle East directorate was much bigger than it is now and the Asia portfolio was managed by a handful of more junior staffers.”
However, it is not only the US that is shifting its geostrategic centre of gravity. Russia, too, is undergoing a major restructuring in its foreign policy priorities. While Washington is retreating from the Middle East, Moscow is cementing its presence in the region, a process which began gradually in its calculated involvement in the Syrian conflict in 2015. Moscow is now offering itself as a political partner and a more balanced mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.
Like the US, Russia might not necessarily see its political involvement as a precursor to actually ending the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Moscow insists, unlike Washington, on the centrality of international law and UN Resolutions in the quest for a just peace. Writing for the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Michał Wojnarowicz argues that Russia’s involvement in Palestine and Israel is consistent with its overall strategy in the Middle East, as it aims to build “a network of influence among regional actors and boost its image as an attractive political partner.”
A variation of this view was offered in the New York Times in 2016, when Moscow began working to translate its strategic gains in Syria to political capital throughout the region. It was during this time that the US-sponsored peace process reached a dead end, giving Russia the opportunity to float the idea of a Moscow-sponsored talk between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Russia’s new-found Middle East peace push, part of President Vladimir V. Putin’s reinsertion of Moscow into the region in a profound way after years of retreat, seems to be about everything but finding peace in the Middle East,” a Times op-ed argued. “Instead, it is about Moscow’s ambitions and competition with Washington.”
At the time, Netanyahu rejected the Russian overture, in the hope that a Republican administration would grant Israel all of its demands without having to make any concessions. The Palestinians, including relatively isolated movements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, found in Moscow a welcoming environment and a crucial international power that is able to balance Washington’s blind support for Israel.
Despite Israel’s refusal to engage with the Palestinians under Russian auspices, many Palestinian delegations visited Moscow, culminating, in January 2017, in a political breakthrough when rival Palestinian factions — Fatah, Hamas and others — held serious talks in the hope of bridging their differences. Although the round of talks did not bring about Palestinian unity, it represented Russia’s political debut in a conflict that has always fallen squarely within the US geopolitical sphere.
Since then, Russia has remained very involved through well-structured efforts championed by Putin’s Special Envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov. These efforts are channelled through three different areas: Palestinian internal dialogue, Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and, of late, dialogue within Fatah. The latter, especially, is indicative of the nature of Moscow’s involvement in the multi-layered conflicts at work in the region.
Russia’s credibility among the factions is boosted by similar credibility among ordinary Palestinians, especially after it emerged in January that they will be receiving the Russian Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, scheduled to be available in the Occupied Territories in the near future.
Moreover, while the Biden administration publicly declared that it will not roll back any of Trump’s actions in favour of Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is pushing for an international peace conference on Palestine, to be held in the coming months.
The US now has no other option but to retreat slowly from its previous commitments to the peace process; in fact, to retreat from the region as a whole. As is often the case, any American retreat means a potential opening for Russia, which is now duly laying claim to the role of peace broker, a seismic change that many Palestinians are already welcoming.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.