Would Russia recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?

Sunday 16/04/2017
Edging closer? Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) about to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Moscow, on March 9. (AFP)

London - A Russian government statement stressing Moscow’s commitment to the two-state solution for the Palestinians and Israelis raised eyebrows by men­tioning the possible recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“Moscow reaffirms its support for the two-state solution as an optimal option that meets the na­tional interests of the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom have friendly relations with Russia, and the interests of all other coun­tries in the region and the interna­tional community as a whole,” said a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on April 6.
“We reaffirm our commitment to the UN-approved principles for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which include the status of East Je­rusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the cap­ital of Israel,” the statement added.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokes­man Emmanuel Nahshon said Isra­el was “studying” the Russia state­ment, which appears to have taken Israeli media by surprise.
“No other country in the world recognises any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” wrote the Jeru­salem Post, noting: “This is a sharp shift in Russian policy, which until now has formally held that Jerusa­lem should eventually be under a permanent international regime.”
The Israeli daily Haaretz was more cautious, saying: “The state­ment represents a modest shift in the Russian attitude towards the peace process. Previously, the Rus­sians had stressed that East Jeru­salem should be the capital of the Palestinian state in any future ar­rangement, without making any reference to the status of West Je­rusalem.”
The Times of Israel branded the Russian statement “an unexpected, unprecedented and curious move” but it added that Israeli officials “were unfazed” by the declaration as “it would appear to deny Israel’s claims to the eastern part” of Jeru­salem.
Israel considers the whole of Je­rusalem as its “undivided and eter­nal” capital, a view rejected by the international community.
Palestinian politicians took ex­ception to the Russian statement.
“From the Palestinian perspec­tive, it’s a dangerous step, espe­cially when considering its timing,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestin­ian minister in the West Bank, told Al Jazeera.
Khatib said the declaration came while US President Donald Trump was considering relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “This would make it easier” for the United States and other countries, Khatib said.
Palestinian officials were sur­prised and concerned by the Rus­sian statement but they will try to learn more from Moscow about its intentions via “quiet diplomacy,” he said, adding that Palestinian of­ficials view Russia’s strengthen­ing ties with Israel to be at their expense and that they fear losing Moscow’s traditional support for their cause at the United Nations.
Russian political analyst Evgeny Sidorov stressed that the Foreign Ministry statement does not con­stitute a direct recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He added that, while Moscow does want to draw Israel closer to it, the Russian statement may have the United States as its prime target.
“I won’t rule out that during a time of wide differences between the US and Russia on Syria, both sides may [have an opportunity to] unify their efforts in finding a solu­tion to the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict,” Sidorov told Al Jazeera.
Geneva-based Palestinian writer Alaa Tartir said the Palestinian-Is­raeli conflict was “being instrumen­talised by the Russians for border political games.”
“As a new global order is unfold­ing, Russia wants to be seen as an influential and relevant actor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not only leave it to the Trump admin­istration,” said Tartir, who is the programme director of Al-Shabaka, a US-based non-profit organisation.
Ahmed al-Burai, a Palestinian lecturer at Istanbul Aydin Univer­sity, agreed. “Russia wants to make itself more relevant in the Middle East,” he said
Moscow’s ambitions, however, would have negative consequences for the Palestinians. “The Russian statement is significant, even if it remains at the rhetorical level for now, because it is an unprecedent­ed position that might encourage other countries to adopt it,” Tartir said.
Patrick Hilsman, a New York-based journalist who monitors Rus­sian policies in the Middle East, pointed to the balancing act that Moscow has been able to maintain in the region. “Despite the animos­ity between Israel and Iran, Russia is able to maintain a robust military relationship with both countries,” Hilsman said.
This relationship, Hilsman con­tinued, allowed Israel to strike Hez­bollah targets inside Syria, despite an alliance between the Lebanese militants and Moscow.
There is also a contrast between the reporting of Russian media out­lets in English, which praise the country’s strong ties with Israel, and in Arabic, which tend to be more anti-Israeli, Hilsman noted.
“It is not surprising that support for Palestinian independence is be­ing traded for the sake of political expediency,” he said.