Trump’s decision to move embassy to Jerusalem has only strengthened Russia’s desire to showcase more power as an acknowledged mediator.
The United States’ embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has only confirmed its de facto intention in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state. Paradoxically, U.S. President Donald Trump is exacerbating the situation by backing Israeli state terrorism within the Palestinian territory and its oppression of Palestinians.
Washington is now transparently involved in Israel’s brutal policy rather than playing hide and seek. With a typical tone of audaciousness and insolence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged other nations to relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump’s decision received backlash from many countries, which argued that such a move would only exacerbate the situation in the region, particularly the condition of the Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation.
Russia was one of the first countries to express its disapproval of the U.S. Embassy citing violations of international law. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the United States’ decision on Jerusalem had brought the Israeli-Palestinian settlement to a standstill, adding that the U.S. decision on Jerusalem has contributed to its deadlock. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybkov deemed the situation “tragic”, harshly criticizing that “taking such decisions was wrong”.
Presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the move was “causing deep concerns” and pointed out that from the very start, Moscow had been expressing concern about the U.S. steps that could raise tensions in the Middle East. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov also described the relocation of the embassy as “short-sighted”.
So what are the main reasons for this grave Russian concern for the U.S.’ Jerusalem decision and seeking immediate resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Russia has historical ties to the Middle East, attaching particular importance to numerous monasteries and pilgrimage sites that are very important for Orthodox Christians. Russian Jews have immigrated to Israel and are known to be one of the strongest post-Soviet Jewish diaspora groups. Patriarch Kirill noted that relations between the Palestinian government and the Russian Orthodox Church were vital due to a great number of Christian Orthodox pilgrims visiting Palestine. Even though Russia-Israel relations have deep roots and are varied, they are also seen as imbalanced and complex due to the multifaceted interstate diplomatic links.
The Russian-speaking community has been very dominant in Israeli politics and will undoubtedly play an essential role in the Russia-Israel relations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia sought to strengthen its positions and influence in the international arena, particularly the Middle East. To achieve this goal, Russia had to take an objective approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and become a strategic partner with the U.S. in search of a solution to the conflict.
Within this framework, in 2002, the Middle East Quartet — the EU, Russia, the United States, and the United Nations — was established to consolidate efforts for a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Active political dialogue has been formed between Russia and Israel to hold regular political consultations, and delegations have been exchanged at various levels. The strategic ‘equidistance’ approach became Russia’s primary strategy in regards to its relations with Israel in particular.
In recent years, the situation in Syria has become one of the critical topics on the political agenda of the Russian-Israeli talks. Russia and Israel are taking different positions on this conflict. Moscow is one of the initiators of the political settlement and a negotiator between the Assad regime and the opposition forces. Being a close ally of Assad, and Israel on the other hand, Russia seeks to ensure that everything near its southern border is quiet and secure.
Russia supported the Syrian army in its fight against Daesh. Even after the defeat of Daesh, Vladimir Putin has continued to assist the Syrian government forces in the battle against other military groups. Israel does not support any of the parties in the conflict and does not participate in the peace talks on Syria. At the same time, Israeli air force regularly raids Syrian territory against armed militants of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which is also engaged in military operations with Assad and is strongly backed by Iran.
Until now, Russia and Israel have tried to avoid escalating tension in bilateral relations against the background of the war in Syria. Russia has constantly faced the same dilemma on how to promote a strategic partnership, trading interests and political inter-stability without harming the other side’s security interests.
Russia wants to have a voice in the region
Russia has been acting inclusively and assertively on the foreign stage partly because Putin’s domestic audience favors this kind of approach. The West and Russia are experiencing their most intense diplomatic crisis since the Cold War; a mass expulsion of diplomats and the imposition of anti-Russian sanctions only maximize Russia’s isolationist policy. However, Russia has found itself in a difficult situation concerning the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Israel is also the only country in the “Western world” with which Russia maintains relatively good relations. On May 9, the Victory Day — one of the most important dates in the Russian calendar –, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was selected as Putin’s VIP guest at the annual military parade, making him the only Western leader to accept the invitation. It was a powerful and symbolic reminder of how Israel and Russian have successfully built strategic ties and developed a geopolitical mutual understanding.
Russia also wants to play a bigger role in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington’s leadership role in the peace talks is no longer acceptable to Palestine, which will have a negative impact on the Middle East Quartet. This is a unique opportunity for Kremlin to position itself as a new mediator and power broker in the region.
On Monday, Lavrov highlighted how Russia had offered a platform for direct dialogue between Israel and Palestine on multiple occasions, which was still valid. Nabil Shaath, an aide of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, said in an interview with the Moscow-based Kommersant daily that Palestine would view Russia as a mediator in bridging its positions with other countries.
Putin wants a part in this combustible and unbalanced tension with the U.S. Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem has only strengthened Russia’s desire to showcase more power as an acknowledged mediator that will be accepted by Tehran and Pyongyang, and in Beijing.
All this depicts a clear picture of Russia increasingly using all methods to gain dominance again over the region, particularly over the U.S. Russia’s main purpose is to weaken Western influence in the Middle East and its various conflicts. Whether it is through sophisticated propaganda or diplomatic war, Russia wants its own rules in the game with Putin fighting hard to weaken the stance of Israel’s main strategic pillar.