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Putin Takes A Tour Of The Mideast

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (R) during a meeting in Amman, 13 February 2007. Putin today welcomed the agreement between Abbas's Fatah faction and rival Hamas to form a new government. For his part, Abbas said his meeting with Putin "comes at the right time" and that he was due to ask Hamas prime minister to resign "within a day or two" and form a new government". Photo courtesy AFP.
by Marianna Belenkaya
political commentator for RIA Novosti.
UPI Outside View Commentator
Moscow (UPI) Feb 15, 2007 Gas, terrorism, and Palestine were the key issues raised during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan. Trade and economic cooperation deserve special attention because they are a subject for the future. Security and military-technical cooperation are classified. The sides discussed them and even reached agreements, but we will not know any details today, or maybe ever.

But they openly and extensively discussed Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general.

As the Russian president himself put it, "No matter what we started to discuss with our partners during the trip, we invariably began and ended with Palestine." It is no accident that the visit resulted in Putin's previously unannounced talks with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who made a special trip to the capital of Jordan for this purpose.

Putin's talks with Arab leaders on the Middle East did not cause any sensations. They revolved around a proposal for an international conference on the Middle East, which Putin had first made during his previous tour of the Middle East about two years ago.

The proposed conference is reminiscent of the Madrid forum in 1991, at which a peace process was launched in the Middle East in four directions: Palestine-Israel, Jordan-Israel, Lebanon-Israel, and Syria-Israel. Moscow suggested a similar conference, at which all interested parties could discuss their differences.

Israel is afraid that the results of such a meeting would be imposed on it as the terms of a final settlement. To the contrary, the Arabs insist that before sitting down at the negotiating table, the sides should understand what they want to achieve.

On the whole, this approach is justified. After all, even without a forum, all parties know their opponents' positions. There have been enough debates on this subject, and everyone wants results. But today, the sides cannot reach agreements that would equally satisfy all of them. What is the point of holding a conference then?

The Madrid forum did not produce specific agreements either. Its main result was the formation of working groups that tried to find points of contact, but to no avail.

Israel and Palestine signed the first accords only at their secret negotiations in Norway in 1993. The Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty appeared in 1994, years after the Madrid forum. But in both cases, the agreements were not likely to be signed if it had not been for Madrid, where Israeli and Arab leaders met in public to discuss a settlement for the first time. The public realized that a compromise was possible. Madrid gave peace a chance. Regrettably, it was eventually lost.

Quite a few mistakes were made in Madrid, via Oslo, and later on. The political situation in the Middle East and the rest of the world has changed more than once. This new period requires new catalysts and loadstars. Few people today doubt that the Arab-Israeli conflict must be resolved, but is it possible to revive the peace process and repeat Madrid without making the same old mistakes?

This is the gist of Putin's proposal. Explaining his idea during the visit, he emphasized that "if we know the result, we don't need a conference -- the sides should simply sit down and sign all the papers at once. But we think the conference could help facilitate cooperation."

Putin added in the same breath that Russia does not consider its proposal a cure-all and welcomes work in every possible format, including through the Quartet, which acts as a go-between for the Israelis and Palestinians, and direct talks between partners in the Middle East.

The round of bilateral negotiations is over, and the Quartet is getting ready for a regular meeting next week. Russia will attend it with the achievements made by President Putin during his Arab tour.

(Marianna Belenkaya is a political commentator at RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board. Reprinted with permission from the news agency.)

Source: RIA Novosti

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