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By John Helmer, Moscow 

There are a few kilometres of flat country between the Golan border of Palestine, occupied by Israel, and Damascus, capital of Syria – perfect visibility, no cover, optimum for Israeli air and artillery attack, and also for Syrian and Iranian drone counterattack.

Between the occupying Israelis and the occupied Palestinians on the Israel side of the line, the Kremlin and the Russian General Staff, victors in the Syria War, say they are unable to see daylight; that’s to say,  they can’t distinguish between attacker and defender. For Russians at daily war themselves defending against the encroaching attacks of the NATO allies not to see this, but instead to accuse the Palestinian defenders of provoking their victimisation and losses, as well as to deny the Palestinians their rights of state sovereignty and national liberation with whatever forces they have – this is the contradiction of President Vladimir Putin.

It’s a contradiction the General Staff, the intelligence agencies, the Defence and Foreign ministers are acutely aware of right now.

On April 21 Putin had proclaimed to the Federal Assembly: “everyone in the world seems to be used to the practice of politically motivated, illegal economic sanctions and to certain actors’ brutal attempts to impose their will on others by force… We really do not warn to burn bridges. But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn or even blow up these bridges, they must know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough. Those behind provocations that threaten the core interests of our security will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time.”

Mediation and negotiation between the two states, Israel and Palestine; an end to military occupation and territorial encroachment by the Israelis upon the Palestinians; as well as political reconciliation of the Palestinian parties, Fatah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – these have been the Russian policy principles. But they have been failing.

On May 14, however, when Putin addressed the meeting of the Security Council, he was so far from admitting this, he announced the war between Israel and Palestine is no more than an “aggravation… which is taking place in close proximity to our borders and directly concerns our security interests.”

Had Putin acknowledged the Israeli invasion of the Palestine capital in Jerusalem was more than an “aggravation”; that it was the outcome of the Trump Administration’s “Vision for Peace” plan of January 2020 for territorial annexations and population displacements; as well as of Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-ditch effort to keep power after losing four elections in two years;  then Putin would have been expressing the consensus of everyone at the Security Council. Had their discussion been reported in the Kremlin communiqué to reveal Russian anticipation that the war is expanding beyond the Gaza and West Bank fronts to the Lebanon line and the Golan front, and perhaps even to the Egyptian front, then Putin would have been obliged to explain, now and quickly, what exactly are “our security interests” in the Palestine war of 2021.

Is it Russia’s security interest to preserve Netanyahu as prime minister? To reduce Gaza to rubble and refugees? To annihilate Hamas? To kill, crush, or imprison Arab men of fighting age of the West Bank and of the Israeli mainland?

Source, and the full text of the US proposal: https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov
 The Trump-Netanyahu plan violates every one of the Russian policy principles, and endorses every one of Netanyahu’s attacks. For example: “the State of Israel has been a good custodian of Jerusalem. During Israel’s stewardship, it has kept Jerusalem open”; “Gaza has tremendous potential but is currently held hostage by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and other terrorist organizations committed to Israel’s destruction”.

Putin’s personal favour for Netanyahu is well documented, and can be followed  here. Putin’s support for Netanyahu’s re-election over the years has been so emphatic that no senior Russian official dares to point it out, let alone object.  Like Putin’s favour for the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, these displays have next to no support among Russia’s senior military and intelligence officers, the Defence and Foreign Ministers.  The effect of their splitting has been to mute Russian criticism of Netanyahu’s provocation of inter-communal violence since his failure at the last election.

Click to read

Following the lethal Israeli Air Force (IAF) ambush and killing of the Russian crew of the Il-20 in Syria on September 17, 2018, President Putin defended the Israeli action until forced by the Defence Ministry and General Staff to correct his public statements.  In Paris on November 11, 2018, left to right:  Putin, an Israeli interpreter, and Netanyahu. The presence of the interpreter signalled that Putin was speaking in Russian to make substantive points, not small talk in which he is able to speak in English with Netanyahu.  The Kremlin press office refused a request at the time to identify the interpreter.

To detect how many contradictions there are at the moment between the Kremlin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, General Valery Gerasimov, head of the General Staff, the intelligence services, and the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, there are next to no signs in public. There is the record of deep hostility on the part of the military for the Israeli role in the killings of Russians in Syria. There is also a much longer standing suspicion of the Arabs, and of Palestinians in particular, which has been passed on from the old KGB to the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

TOP: Yevgeny Primakov with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, October 1990. BOTTOM: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Fradkov and Lavrov, Damascus, February 7, 2012. It is coincidental that Primakov, the most pro-Arab of Russian intelligence chiefs, and Fradkov, the least pro-Arab, current head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and ex-chief of the SVR, have been of Jewish origin.  

The fine print of the Foreign Ministry bulletins reveals no more than a holding action, repeating past Russian principles, ignoring Israeli violations of them, delaying decisions on what is to be done now. The outcome is a public display of equivalence. Russia appears to be treating the Israeli attacks as self-defence, and the Palestinian counterattacks as provocation.

On May 9, Russia agreed to a joint statement by the Quartet. “The Envoys of the Middle East Quartet from the European Union, Russia, the United States, and the United Nations are closely monitoring the situation in East Jerusalem, including in the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.  The Envoys express deep concern over the daily clashes and violence in East Jerusalem, in particular last night’s confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount. We are alarmed by the provocative statements made by some political groups, as well as the launching of rockets and the resumption of incendiary balloons from Gaza towards Israel, and attacks on Palestinian farmland in the West Bank.”

“The Envoys noted with serious concern the possible evictions of Palestinian families from homes they have lived in for generations in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and voice opposition to unilateral actions, which will only escalate the already tense environment. We call upon Israeli authorities to exercise restraint and to avoid measures that would further escalate the situation during this period of Muslim Holy Days. We call on all sides to uphold and respect the status quo at the holy sites. All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement.  In this context, the Quartet Envoys reiterated their commitment to a negotiated two state solution.”

The Quartet meeting in Brussels, October 11, 2011 – left to right, Tony Blair, the Quartet’s special negotiator; Hillary Clinton;  Sergei Lavrov;   UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon;  and EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton. The Palestinians repudiated all of them except Lavrov.

What the Americans and Europeans mean by “provocative statements by some political groups”, “the status quo at the holy sites”, “extremists”, “violence and incitement” is not what the Russians have meant. Not at all — at least not until now.

Two days later, on May 11, Maria Zakharova, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, announced what the Russian meaning is.    “According to information received, in addition to clashes between Muslims arriving for prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque complex and Israeli security forces, mass protests of Palestinians took place in Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank. As a result of skirmishes, several dozen people were injured. Against this background, the situation around the Gaza Strip sharply worsened. In response to the dramatic events in East Jerusalem, Palestinian paramilitary groups launched numerous rocket attacks on Israeli territory. As a result, more than 30 residents of Ashdod and Ashkelon were reportedly injured and two were killed. On the night and morning of May 11, the Israeli Air Force launched several series of attacks on various targets in the enclave, as a result of which at least 28 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 were injured. In Moscow, they perceive with deep concern such a dangerous development of events. We strongly condemn attacks against civilians, regardless of their national or religious affiliation.”

This was a statement of equivalence.

“We urge the parties to exercise restraint and not to take steps that could further escalate tensions. We believe that it is important to observe the status quo established in the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty with regard to the Holy Places in Jerusalem, as well as the well-known UN resolutions regarding this city. As a permanent member of the Security Council, a member of the ‘quartet’ of international mediators on the БВУ, in cooperation with regional and international parties, Russia will consistently strive for an integrated and sustainable settlement in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions providing for the creation of two states – Palestine and Israel, coexisting in peace and security.”

As Zakharova was speaking for the public record, the ministry official in direct charge of the conflict,  Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, arranged a physical display of equivalence by staging visits to the ministry of the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian ambassador.  “On May 11,” reads one of the communiqués, Vershinin “received Ambassador of the State of Israel to Moscow A[lexander].B[en] Zvi at his request. During the conversation, a substantive discussion was held on the current situation in East Jerusalem, in particular in the area of ​ ​ the Al-Aqsa mosque complex, and around the Gaza Strip. The UN Security Council consultations on this issue were also touched upon. Deep concern was expressed on the Russian side about the continuing escalation of tensions. The importance of an early cessation of violence, as well as any actions that could lead to further degradation of the security situation, was emphasized. The need to observe the status quo of the Holy Places in Jerusalem, as enshrined in the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, as well as well-known UN resolutions regarding this city, was emphasized. The attitude of Russia to continue assisting in the restart of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, including by using the mechanism of the Middle East ‘quartet’ of international mediators, has been confirmed.”  

Left to right: Deputy Minister Vershinin; Palestine Ambassador Nofal; Israel Ambassador Zvi. Born in Ukraine, Zvi moved to Israel in 1971; he was appointed to his current post in mid-2020. Before that he was Israel’s ambassador to Poland.

“On May 11, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia S.V. Vershinin received Ambassador of Palestine A. Nofal and Ambassador of Jordan K[haled] Shawabkeh at their request,” reads the parallel communiqué.  “During the conversation, the ambassadors brought the agreed position of their countries on the escalation of tensions in East Jerusalem and around the Gaza Strip. On their part, the illegality of Israel’s plans to evict Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem quarter of Sheikh Jarrah was emphasized, as well as the inadmissibility of force in the Al-Aqsa mosque complex. In view of the rapid deterioration of the security situation, a general view was expressed on the need to end the violence and resume the sustained Palestinian-Israeli negotiation process as soon as possible with a view to reaching compromise solutions on all final status issues. The Russian side confirmed its readiness to further increase efforts in this direction, including using the capabilities of the Middle East ‘quartet’ of international mediators.”

The geographic and the diplomatic limits in this Russian text reveal that Moscow was refusing to acknowledge that the fighting was spreading; that it was war between two states; and that negotiations, especially with Israel’s American and European backers, were bound to fail now. By camouflaging the Russian negotiating position behind the Quartet,Vershinin was covering a Russian retreat.

The retreat was made more obvious by the Foreign Ministry’s refusal to invite the Palestinian ambassador, Abdel Hafiz Nofal, to meet Vershinin on his own, without the Jordanian chaperone. Nofal is a Soviet-educated Palestinian from Ramallah, on the West Bank; a senior official of the PLO, then of the Fatah-led Palestine state.  Nofal outranks Shawabkeh in seniority at his Moscow post, and in Palestine, where Shawabkeh was Jordan’s envoy from 2015 and Nofal a government minister.

The Foreign Ministry archive records 29 official meetings between Russian officials and Nofal going back to September 2015. Never before has Nofal been subordinated to another Arab state ambassador.  

Source: https://www.mid.ru/

Leading Russian intelligence experts and Moscow think-tank specialists on the Middle East were asked what the reason was for the Foreign Ministry’s downgrading of the Palestinian state at this point in time. They don’t deny the interpretation; they refuse to say what the reason for it is.

The day after the meetings with Zvi and Nofal, on May 12, Vershinin gave a Moscow press interview.  He acknowledged that of the victims of the fighting, “the vast majority of them [are] Palestinians.” He conceded “the trigger for the current escalation was largely the release of the preliminary decision of the Israeli court to expropriate land in the Sheikh Jarrah quarter, forcibly evict Palestinians living there and demolish their homes. Such an attempt to legalize the continued practice of Israeli settlement is imposed on the advancement of plans for the construction of 540 housing units in the Har Homa settlement in the West Bank.”

“We consider it important not to silence what is happening,”Vershinin added, “and call things by their names”. He then equivocated between “all manifestations of violence against civilians, both in Israel and in Palestine, as well as any actions that complicate the possibility of restarting the negotiation process on a universally recognized international legal basis… We reaffirm our commitment to the international legal framework for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement that meets the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their own State and Israel’s security demands.”

What is Moscow planning to do next, he was asked. More talk, Vershinin replied.  

“In coordination with the Chinese partners chairing the UN Security Council, as well as the delegations of other member countries, we continue to work to bring positions closer…In addition, we maintain contacts with all interested players on a bilateral basis. In particular, the theme of the Palestinian-Israeli escalation was touched upon during a telephone conversation between the presidents and foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey, and is on the agenda of consultations with the UN Secretary General A[ntonio] Guterres, who arrived in Moscow. We are also determined to continue vigorous efforts within the framework of the Middle East Quartet, which is the only internationally recognized mechanism for accompanying the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process. Specifically, we are engaged in efforts to agree on a consensus statement to the press.”

Zakharova repeated the new version of equivalence in her press briefing on May 13. “We are also in contact with all the stakeholders on a bilateral basis.”    As the Nofal-Shawabkeh incident revealed, there is now no “bilateral basis” with the Palestinians, at least not in the open.

According to the Kremlin record, the only Middle Eastern figure Putin has discussed the Palestine war with is the Turk, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Putin initiated the telephone call to him on May 12. With Erdogan,  Putin appears to have confined himself geographically, as if the fight isn’t in Gaza, the West Bank, and on the Lebanon border. “The presidents exchanged views on the recent aggravation [sic] in East Jerusalem and voiced serious concern over the continuing clashes and the growing number of casualties. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the sides of the conflict to de-escalate the tension and settle their disputes in a peaceful manner.”  The cynicism in this communiqué has been widely remarked in the Arab world.

A leading Hellenic expert on Erdogan comments: “He is good with Islamic symbolism addressed to the Muslims. He is now losing his Islamist majority. But just as he is backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt he will do  the same with the Palestinians. That’s support up to a point.  Not beyond. On this Erdogan is matched by the hypocrisy of the rest of world.” For a Turkish assessment of Erdogan’s duplicity on Palestine, click to read.  

The most explicit statement of Russian cynicism appeared last week in Vzglyad, the publication of sophisticated and frank analyses from GRU and other intelligence sources. The author was Gevorg Mirzayan. His headline was: “Arab tricks led to the attack on Israel.”

Source: https://vz.ru/world/2021/5/12/1098711.html  Gevorg Mirzayan is an associate professor at the Russian state  Financial University. Mirzayan does not respond to questions asked in follow-up to his publications.

“If you read the media,” wrote Mirzayan, “it may seem that there are almost full-scale military operations on the territory of Israel now. Crowds of rioting Palestinian Arabs (who are simply called Palestinians, although Jews are offended and say that they are also Palestinians) attack police officers and residents of Jewish nationality, throwing everything that comes to hand at them. If you continue to read these media, you can learn that all this happened solely through the fault of the Israeli authorities, who decided to evict Arab families from their homes in the Palestinian quarter of Sheikh Jarah in East Jerusalem.”

“In the end, it looked like the expulsion of the Arab owners by force, whereas for a real legal dispute, the Israeli owners always had all the necessary papers signed by the Arabs.”

“Then why did this ordinary, in fact, case cause such a non-ordinary riot? There are several reasons for this, and they all coincided, creating the current perfect Palestinian storm. One of them is that the whole story fell on the so-called Al–Quds Day –the date on the holy holiday of Ramadan for Muslims, when they remember the loss of Jerusalem. A date which, more broadly, symbolizes for Muslims their humiliation at the hands of Jews and ‘crusaders’.”

“Officially, it was these clashes that angered Hamas. The group demanded the police and military withdraw from the Sheikh Jarah area and from the Temple Mount by 18: 00 on May 10, and after the expiration of the ultimatum, the terrorists sent hundreds of rockets to Israel by auto-launch. However, in reality, the motive for Hamas was different – political. On May 22, the first parliamentary elections in 15 years were to be held in Palestine (i.e., in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank). And Hamas understood that by supporting the Jerusalem Arabs, it dramatically increases its chances of winning – not only in the sector completely under its control, but also in the West Bank, where the Fatah group of Mahmoud Abbas dominates.”

Left to right, alive at latest reports, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh; Fatah leader and President of the Palestine state, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen); Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, Abd Al-Aziz Awda.  For Palestinian opinions on these figures, the political options they represent, and party preferences, read this report of March 23, 2021. Haniyeh was losing ground to Abbas. The poll also reveals that sentiment in favour of armed struggle against Israel was equal to the sentiment for negotiations, though the majority dismissed the usefulness of negotiations directed by the Russian-backed Quartet.

“In turn, Fatah was faced with the task of rapidly recovering popularity. Abbas’ reputation was seriously damaged by his too weak (in the opinion of the Arabs) and capitulationist position towards the Jewish state. He did not have the rockets to support the Arab families of Jerusalem, but he had the opportunity to unite with them through organizing mass riots. Which, apparently, he did… The Arab terrorists from Fatah and Hamas could have a desire to test the strength of this [post-election Israeli party] coalition, and Netanyahu himself – to disrupt its formation. After all, the sharp escalation of tension forces its Jewish participants to sharply criticize the Palestinian rioters, after which it becomes extremely difficult for Arab deputies to officially join this coalition. And without these deputies, the forces opposing Netanyahu will not have enough votes to form a majority and, accordingly, topple the current prime minister from the throne, which he has held for 12 consecutive years.”

The Russian website known as Colonel Cassad, a voice of junior officer sentiment, reported on May 15 that it expects a widening of the war if Hezbollah of Lebanon, the Syrian and Iranian forces in front of the Golan, and the Turks join in. “Iran and its main proxies are waiting. There are only small groups in Syria and Lebanon. There was no request from Hamas. And without that, no one will go anywhere…The Iron Dome [Israel’s anti-missile defence shield ] myth has been bluntly blazing in recent days. It is interesting (but not all) know how it would cope with the Hezbollah missile arsenal, which is much stronger than Hamas and Islamic Jihad combined… ‘friend Recep’ [Erdogan]  so far has not distinguished himself by doing anything of significance, except for letting off statements of support for Palestine. Without concrete action, it will be difficult for him to pressure Iran on the Palestinian issue.”

A directional marker on the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, indicating how short the distance is to Damascus. For an Israeli assessment of the Palestinian party politics at stake in the fighting so far, click to read.

The point which Palestinians and Israelis have now reached in the conflict, in the view of these military analysts, has gone beyond the balancing, mediating, and equivocating line where Russian civilian officials claim to be digging in. A Russian source quips: “Putin appears to be sitting like King Canute telling the sea to roll back. God may have done that once for the Israelis on their way out of Egypt; he won’t be doing it for them again now.”

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