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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Back In The Middle East

Washington, 31 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. efforts to advance the Middle East peace process appear to have run into difficulties, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov this week is visiting that region both to reassert Moscow's status as co-chairman of that process and to reestablish Russian influence there.

Since Monday, Primakov has made stops in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. He is scheduled to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian self-rule territory before returning to Moscow later this week.

At each stop, Primakov has made three interrelated points;

First, he has pointedly noted that Russia remains, along with the United States, the co-chairman of the 1991 Madrid Conference that launched the current round of talks between Israel and the PLO.

Second, he has dismissed suggestions that recent European Union efforts to get involved in these talks were intended to "displace" Russia. Instead, he has welcomed a European role in the talks, suggesting in Cairo on Wednesday that such European participation "shows that we are heading in the direction of a multi-polar world."

And third, the Russian foreign minister has rejected Israel's insistence that some past agreements -- such as the scheduled withdrawal of Israeli forces from Hebron -- must now be renegotiated. "There must be continuity in adhering to the principles and accords which have been concluded," Primakov said on Tuesday. "It is not acceptable for each new government to adopt new positions."

At one level, of course, Primakov's visit to the Middle East breaks little new ground. His interlocutors now are overwhelmingly people with whom the Russian foreign minister has had numerous contacts both in his current position and in earlier capacities as a Soviet Middle East hand.

And his statements -- backing the Arabs against the Israelis, demanding that Russia be given a seat at any negotiations, and accepting European participation -- simply repeat longstanding Russian positions.

But at another, deeper level, Primakov's visit to the region this week may mark a turning point in Russian diplomacy there. That conclusion is suggested by the timing of his trip, its length, and Primakov's notable eagerness at each stop to portray Moscow as a necessary counterweight to American efforts to dominate the peace process.

Primakov's visit to the region comes on the heels of the breakdown in American-sponsored efforts to overcome the latest Israeli-Palestinian deadlock concerning the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Hebron.

Jerusalem earlier had agreed to pull its troops from that overwhelmingly Palestinian city on the West Bank. But the new Israeli government has argued that the Palestinians must live up to the conditions of earlier accords before they can expect Israel to do the same.

That position has infuriated both the Palestinians and many other Arabs, and their anger has grown in recent days given what they see as Washington's unwillingness or inability to put pressure on the Israelis.

By visiting the Middle East now, Primakov is clearly hoping to exploit these feelings to expand Russia's influence just as he and Moscow have done in the past. And by spending an entire week there, Primakov is indicating just how much importance Russia devotes both to them and to the region as a whole.

But perhaps the most important reason for thinking that this Primakov visit marks a turning point in Moscow's foreign policy is this: The Russian government -- or at least the Russian foreign minister -- appears to be prepared to line up against the United States in a way and in a region where such a face-off could lead to renewed violence between Arabs and Israelis.

Moscow's willingness to take such a risk in the Middle East indicates that it may be ready to increase its challenge to the United States and the West elsewhere, a step which could have, as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott warned yesterday, unpredictable and undesirable consequences far beyond the troubled region in which Primakov is fishing this week.