How far will Putin go to annoy the U.S.? News is now emerging that Russia wants to start its own peace process in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Vladimir Putin is making the initial manoeuvres to test the waters with both Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu via their common friend, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
What is interesting about this is that the Russians cannot possibly think that they can succeed where eight years of diplomacy by the Obama administration have failed. Israel holds most, if not all of the cards. It is militarily supreme in its region, and it is underwritten with a blank cheque by the U.S. Congress. They do not have to do anything they do not want to do — not even when the U.S. president is pressuring them. Let alone Russia.
The fundamental problem for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that both sides see negotiations as a zero-sum game. One party’s gain is the other’s loss. Israel has the upper hand and has no reason to be generous with concessions to the Palestinians. And it is guaranteed to make no concessions as long as the right-wing Likud party is in power. Even more so now that they are allied with the ultra-Zionist Yisrael Beiteinu party in the Knesset.
The only way to get Israel to move on the issue is to force them to compromise. But the only party who can impose on them in that way is the United States, or, as the events of the past eight years have demonstrated, specifically the U.S. Congress.
When the Obama administration came to power, it had grand visions of peace in the Middle East. And despite its catalogue of failures in other areas in the region, they have certainly showed more determination to bring Israel to the negotiating table and impose on them the need to make concessions toward the two-state solution than any other administration before them. But even then they failed. Even the Presidency proved impotent while Congress continues to unconditionally support and fund Israel.
So if the Obama administration has failed to move the Israelis on the issue, with the only apparent result an increasingly irritated Netanyahu, what does Putin think he can achieve? As always, it is difficult to double-guess what he might be thinking. But from the outside, it is patently clear that Russia has little to offer to Israel in the form of inducement or constraint.
‘The game plan’
The only reason why Netanyahu might play along with the charade at all is to annoy the Americans – he is happy to take the opportunity to chide Obama, for having the temerity to try and impress Palestinian demands on his government. Putin is known to be much more pro-Palestinian than even Obama, and the chances that any of this will ever go anywhere productive are effectively zero.
But that may not matter. Putin’s overall game plan for the Middle East seems to be to weave this narrative of American withdrawal and decline, and that may well be an accurate description of the situation in the region. Putin seeks to insert himself in this power vacuum left by the United States and reassert Russia’s status as a global power willing and able to do those things which the United States is not. Thus, Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of their preferred side when the United States failed to act over the chemical weapons red line.
In the same vein, if Russia is seen to be making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after so many decades of American failures, that would be the crowning achievement of such a strategy. The only snag is that it has a precisely zero chance of succeeding.
So is Putin willing to overextend himself diplomatically by tying himself down to a sinking ship on the off-chance that it might make America look bad? As far as some American commentators are concerned, he is more than welcome to it.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.
This article was initially published by Al-Arabiya English on Oct. 1, 2016.