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Trump just handed Russia an opening in the Middle East peace process

by Greg Walters
Dec 10 2017, 11:48am

Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital didn’t just obliterate decades of U.S. policy. It effectively disqualified the U.S. from leading the peace process in the eyes of the Palestinians, diplomats and analysts told VICE News.

“All of the Palestinians that I’ve talked to over the last couple days are saying: ‘Washington is now irrelevant to negotiations, and we don’t care what you say,’” said Hady Amr, U.S. deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under Barack Obama. “The PLO is humiliated and angry. Hamas is enraged.”

Ruling the U.S. out of future peace talks entirely would be premature, experts said, given its uniquely close ties to Israel. Yet Trump’s decision opens a void that no other country can easily fill. One nation in particular, however, seems eager to try: Russia.

Russia has dramatically raised its profile in the Middle East since launching a military operation in 2015 that rescued Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s crumbling regime in the face of resurgent rebel forces and repeated American declarations that the dictator must step down. Invigorated by its success in Syria, Russia has demonstrated a sort of diplomatic swagger the Middle East hasn’t seen since Cold War days, filling power vacuums left by America’s pullback in key arenas, diplomats and analysts said.

Russia will be a priority.”

Trump may have just given Russia yet another hole to exploit and grow its influence in the Middle East even further, said Ilan Goldenberg, chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under Obama.

“Everyone now looks at Moscow as the key arbiter that needs to be consulted on every major issue in the Middle East,” Goldenberg told VICE News. “This will only exacerbate that situation.”

The Palestinians, for their part, will likely seek support from Russia, along with other European and Arab states, said Khaled Elgindy, who advised the Palestinian leadership on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009.

“Russia will be a priority” in the Palestinian search for international backing, Elgindy told VICE News. “But I see Russia as one among many.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas during their meeting the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, on Monday, April 18, 2016. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool photo via AP)

Even before Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, Russia had begun showing a greater interest in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In September 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to stage a summit in Moscow between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both Abbas and Netanyahu later blamed each other for dodging the meeting.

On the night before Trump’s announcement, Putin received a call from Abbas. On the phone, Putin stressed Russia’s support for the “immediate resumption of direct Palestinian-Israeli talks on all disputed issues,” according to a Kremlin statement.

This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Trump’s decision “defies common sense,” and Putin declared himself “deeply concerned.” And on Friday, Putin announced a trip to Turkey this coming Monday, on top of an already-arranged visit to Egypt, to discuss Jerusalem and other regional issues.

The Palestinian leadership will face enormous pressure from its own people to spurn U.S. overtures now that Washington has given away one of the main prizes Palestinians hoped to gain through peace talks — a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem — diplomats and analysts said.

“This stops it. This stops it cold.”

But Russia’s intentions aren’t likely to translate into concrete results anytime soon, analysts said, for one simple reason: Moscow doesn’t enjoy the same special relationship with Israel that the U.S. does. Nor does it have the economic or military might that Israel so often leans on.

What comes next remains far from certain, but one thing is solidifying: For many Palestinians, the U.S.-led peace process died on Wednesday.

“This stops it. This stops it cold,” said Amanda Kadlec, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. “And because that door is now shut, Russia could see an opportunity to step in and be the peace broker.”

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Cover image: Palestinian protesters take cover during clashes with Israeli forces near the West Bank city of Ramallah December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic