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Yasser Arafat's decline puts Russia's role in the Mideast peace process in critical condition
The end of the Arafat era will present Moscow with a dilemma and an opportunity. The opportunity is for Russia to reassert itself within the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue as a key player, one more neutral than the pro-Arab Soviets and more reliable than the unilateralist U.S. administration. The dilemma is how to do that while respecting Arafat's legacy but without antagonizing Arab allies or jeopardizing President Vladimir Putin's relationship with George W. Bush. A version of this dilemma has been facing the Kremlin since the end of the Cold War, and it has grown acute since the September school attack at Beslan led Putin to declare all international terrorists as the enemy. Seizing this opportunity will require aggressive yet careful diplomacy, and a cooperative or preoccupied White House. It's quite possible that Russia will fail, and that Arafat's passing will herald the passing of the era of Moscow's participation in the peace process. Arafat's death could provoke chaos that renders Russian envoys irrelevant, or they may be squeezed out of negotiations by the United States and Israel. That would deeply wound Russia's fragile global influence and its self-image, but it would also be a shame - and a potential danger - for the whole peace effort. Regardless of Putin's personal ambitions, Russia itself is too close geographically to the Middle East and has too much invested in the region to be shunted aside. Soviet leader Josef Stalin supported the U.N.-led creation of Israel in 1948, largely in hopes of gaining a foothold in the volatile region at the dawn of the Cold War. The Soviet leadership soon sided with the Arab world, installing friendly regimes in the Middle East and providing military backing to Arab causes. Mahmoud Abbas, long Arafat's No. 2 and once considered a likely successor as Palestinian leader, was one of thousands of Arabs educated in Soviet universities or agencies. (Abbas has a degree on the history of Zionism from Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies.) Moscow's role suffered with Israel's victory in 1973 and as Egypt fell into the U.S. orbit. As the USSR was starting to crumble, Moscow co-sponsored the Madrid conference in 1991 that put Israel and the Palestinians in face-to-face talks for the first time. Russia remained an official co-sponsor of the peace process but its role shriveled after the collapse of the Soviet Union diminished Moscow's global might and finances. Russia revived its involvement with the so-called Road Map signed in 2003 outlining measures leading to a Palestinian state. Russia's then-foreign minister Igor Ivanov helped lead negotiations by the quartet of Russia, the United States, the U.N. and the European Union. Meanwhile, Russia has relaxed its hostility to Israel and abandoned state-sponsored anti-Semitism, and the abolishment of exit visas has left Russians free to emigrate to Israel. At the same time Russians and their leaders have grown more hostile toward Islamic extremists as the decade-old war in Chechnya has led to terrorist acts targeting Russian civilians. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Putin chose to ally with Bush in his war on terrorists, forcing a reassessment of Moscow's policy in the Middle East. The hostage-taking attack in Beslan further solidified Putin's stance. Russia has increased ties with Israeli security agents in the fight against suicide bombers. Putin said Russia was at war with all international terrorists, implying that even those with a cause Russia finds just, like the Palestinians, should no longer be considered separate from their brethren in Chechnya. And Putin backed Bush in his re-election campaign, saying that terrorists were seeking to unseat him and cheering Americans for not giving in to fear. Back in the Middle East, the Road Map plan has stalled. Arafat's absence may change little; he symbolizes Palestinian identity after 40 years in power and his colleagues cling closely to his policies. But many Israelis and Palestinians are hoping a successor will clear the way for more negotiations. Jordan and some Arab leaders are urging a larger Russian role in the peace process, despite Putin's Chechnya policies and rapport with Bush. Putin has talked about using Russia's ties with Palestinians and the large number of Russian-speaking emigres in Israel to engender trust on both sides. Bush, however, is fresh from a re-election victory that he may see as a mandate for more unilateralism. The United States may use a power vacuum to force its goals in the region. Putin could hang on to a role in the Middle East by supporting U.S. policy, but he would have to tread carefully to avoid being viewed by the Palestinians as Bush's lackey. Ultimately Russia's role will depend on the Palestinians and Israelis. If they can transfer Palestinian power peacefully, then much of the work of international negotiators is already done.
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