Putin the peacemaker: The shape of things to come?
In the mid-1990s, seven Israeli members of parliament wrote to Iraq’s ambassador to the United States Nizar Hamdoun suggesting a high-profile visit to Baghdad, officially as a humanitarian delegation to get around UN sanctions.
This would be marketed as “normalising” bilateral relations, with Israel using its influence to help Iraq get crippling international sanctions lifted.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein said ‘no’ and the idea never saw the light of day. In the early 1950s, the Israelis made a similar “swap offer” to Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the president of Egypt, promising to help him regain control of the Suez Canal in return for his pledge to stop the Arab media war on Israel and prevent Palestinian infiltration from the West Bank and Gaza.
Today, a similar proposal may be in the air, this time between Damascus and Tel Aviv, brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
By all accounts, Putin is a good friend of Israel. For years he has surrounded himself with powerful Jewish friends such as Rabbi Berel Lazar, diamond king Lev Leviev and Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress.
Through them he has supported world Jewry on several occasions, including funding the Jewish Museum in Moscow, and secured firm support from Russian Jewish oligarchs. Over the last six months, he has received Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu four times — certainly more than US President Barack Obama — and in early June Putin hinted he was willing to jump-start the 2002 Arab peace initiative.
That proposal, supported by all members of the Arab League, was the brainchild of then- Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. It called for collective restoration of occupied land in exchange for full peace and normalisation.
This was a remarkable development for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which had refused to recognise Israel’s right to exist, and those ideologically committed to destroying it, such as Libya, Iraq and Syria.
Putin has minimal influence in the Gulf and there is no sense in jump-starting anything with Libya and Iraq but he would have a huge interest in sponsoring a fresh round of Syrian-Israeli talks, mainly because, unlike previous negotiations, these might have a chance of success.
The last time the two countries got together, albeit indirectly, was in 2008, mediated of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the Turkish prime minister. Russia’s influence on Damascus, thanks to nine months of military operations supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, is far stronger than that of Turkey at the apex of the Syrian-Turkish honeymoon.
Putin can tell Netanyahu “I can deliver peace with the Syrians” because of the absence of assertive US leadership in the region, thanks to Obama. Additionally, resistance to such talks and any deal they may produce is minimal, and possibly non-existent, on the Syrian street.
Syrians are exhausted after five years of war and are prepared to accept what they would not in the past, especially if it involves concessions on normalisation with Israel such as tourism and trade.
Any peace deal, of course, would have to be between Israel and what many now call “Useful Syria”, which includes Damascus, Homs and Hama in the central region and Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
This is the territory where Russian military power is centred and it represents Syrian officialdom at the United Nations. War-torn Aleppo in the north or Islamic State-held Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates are not part of Russia’s sphere of influence — and Israel could not care less who rules them.
What does matter to the Israelis is who controls Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan, Israel’s peace partner. They want an internationally recognised government with which they can make a deal and hold accountable for implementation.
A weak government in Damascus is music to Israeli ears. It is one that theoretically would accept what was turned down in 1999-2000. In previous peacemaking in the region, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, only started thinking seriously about peace after his Third Army was encircled and trapped in the 1973 war.
The Israelis only agreed to the Oslo process after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s revolutionaries had been sidelined geographically by long-distance exile in Tunis, and politically by the teenagers throwing stones at Israeli tanks in the first intifada, which began in 1987.
Israel only signed a peace agreement with Jordan in 1994 after the Hashemite kingdom lost the steady revenue it had received from Saddam and its international support for refusing to join the coalition that expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991. Israel only started talking to the Syrians after the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s.
Netanyahu realises that a new Middle East is emerging, where Russia is gaining the upper hand, sometimes in silent agreement with the United States.
Days after Putin addressed the United Nations in September 2015, Netanyahu flew to Moscow and met with the Russian leader. Putin was remarkably silent about the controversial UN speech and Netanyahu said nothing about Russia’s involvement in the Syria war, giving his silent blessing.
Behind closed doors, Syrians feel that Russia has inherited the sponsorship of peace talks from the United States, provided it protects Israeli interests, which Putin would gladly guarantee.