Sana Abdallah
The Middle East Times
April 18, 2008 - 6:25pm

As fighting continues to rage in the Gaza Strip and progress bogs down in the U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has turned to Russia for help.

Abbas was in Moscow Thursday calling to convene a conference in the Russian capital "as soon as possible" because the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations that were re-launched at Annapolis in November were not moving forward.

"I regret to say that there are obstacles hindering the application of what was agreed upon in Annapolis," Abbas said in a lecture at Moscow University, from where he earned a history doctorate degree in the 1980s.

"The negotiations are not advancing at the required pace or yielding the progress necessary for us to reach the agreed objectives by the agreed dates," he added, in reference to concluding a peace deal before U.S. President George W. Bush's term expires next January.

Since the Maryland conference, regular Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have been shackled by Jewish settlement expansion on territories where the future Palestinian state is to be set up as part of any peace agreement.

In addition, at least 413 people – most of them Palestinians – have been killed in massive Israeli military offensives in the Hamas-controlled Gaza, the latest of which was on Wednesday after Palestinian militants clashed with Israeli troops at a border fuel terminal that killed three soldiers.

Israel retaliated with an operation that killed 18 Palestinians, including a Reuters cameraman and five children.

On Thursday, a Palestinian militant was killed and two injured in clashes near the Kerem Shalom crossing, in what seems to be a rise in Palestinian cross-border attacks from Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade since Hamas ousted the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority from the strip last June.

Gaza's 1.5 million people, who have been sealed in a virtual prison with Egypt's closure of its border as well, was bracing for more bloodshed following Hamas' vow to avenge Wednesday's assault and Israel's warning it would continue its attacks until it stops Palestinian rocket fire and other attacks.

Abbas, who again "strongly condemned Israel's escalation of violence" in Gaza, hopes that the Russians would succeed where the Americans are failing in bringing a halt to the carnage and give impetus to the peace process, according to Palestinian sources.

He called for an "immediate ceasefire" in Gaza between Israel and armed Palestinian groups, saying he would seek Russian President Vladimir Putin's help to bring about such a truce, which is already being mediated by Egypt.

Unlike the United States – and Abbas himself for that matter – Russia is the only member of the international peace Quartet that recognizes the legitimacy of Hamas, which swept the legislative elections in January 2006.

Middle East analysts say this Russian impartiality could give Moscow influence as a successful mediator on different levels for a ceasefire as well as the peace process: between Hamas and Abbas' Palestinian Authority (PA), between Hamas and the Israel-U.S. alliance for a ceasefire, and between the PA and Israel in the peace process.

The Quartet, which laid out the 2003 road map for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, includes the European Union and United Nations in addition to the United States and Russia.

Independent Palestinian analysts say that Abbas' endeavor for a greater Russian role in the peace process refutes his critics' accusations that the Palestinian president had put all his eggs in the American basket to secure a peace deal and a Palestinian state this year.

Abbas had come under sharp criticism at home for giving Washington, widely seen as much too favorable toward Israel and its policies, the primary role of a peace broker.

His turning toward Moscow, which maintains equally strong relations with both Israel and the Arabs, suggests that he may have realized that the Bush administration will not save him from the predicament of being caught in futile negotiations while Israel continues to build settlements and increase its military assaults, according to some Arab commentators.

They argue that the Russians are in a much better position to mediate a fair settlement than the Americans.

Abbas is due to speak to Putin and other top officials on Friday to push for convening a peace conference in Moscow in June, not so much to replace the U.S. role, but as a follow-up to the Annapolis meeting.

"We will push as hard as we can for it to be held as soon as possible," Abbas told Moscow University students. "We think it is an important conference and we count on it to push forward the peace process between us and the Israelis."

Russia proposed hosting a second conference immediately after Annapolis and sought to convene it in January, but Israel has been unenthusiastic about it because the meeting was meant to include other peace tracks with Syria and Lebanon, while Tel Aviv wants to focus on the Palestinian track.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials said they would attend a Moscow conference, which Washington supports, should it be convened.

Observers, however, say if a Moscow meeting is held at all, it could be a replica of another Annapolis and not produce any substantial results, other than an agreement to continue negotiating.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017