Crisis in the Middle East

Crisis in the Middle East
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View From Russia

Crisis in the Middle East in the Eyes of Russian Media, Public Opinion and Policy Makers

Introduction

As we have seen over the past few weeks, the violence in the Middle East has echoed in heightened tensions and even in attacks against Jewish institutions and individuals in a number of countries around the world.

Amid numerous reports on incidents and tensions that involved Diaspora Jews, one large Jewish community has hardly been mentioned, the Jews of Russia.

Indeed, there is no indication that despite Russiaís known history of anti-Semitism, pro-Arabism, and the presence in the country of a multi-million Muslim community, that any individual Jew or Jewish institutions have been targeted by anti-Semites or religious extremists because of the mounting tensions in Israel.

These days Russia has been on the sidelines of both involvement in the developments in the Middle East and in the residual impact the crisis had triggered around the world.

Yet it is important to look at where Russians stand these days on the situation in the Middle East.

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The Kremlin and the Crisis

The Russian stand on the situation - though not as articulated as in the past - is no big surprise to most experts. While Moscow nominally remains a co-sponsor of the Middle East peace process along with the United States - it assumed this function in Madrid in 1991, -- Russian influence on the situation in the region has been miniscule and falls short of what one would expect from a country with a record as a prominent player in Near Eastern politics.

The official Russian position on the crisis these days is by and large limited to some general statements by the Foreign Ministry officials and President Vladimir Putin himself.

After Putin declined to attend the crisis summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, Moscow issued a series of repetitive statements expressing its general concern over what was going on in Israel Ė mostly demonstrating an effort by the government to save face as a player in the world of big diplomacy.

It is hard to imagine that Putinís most recent involvement in the crisis mediation - his telephone conversations with Barak and Arafat Ė will result in Russia replacing the U.S. as the major diplomatic force in the Middle East.

It should be noted that both the Israelis and Palestinians have recently called on Moscow to play an increased role in the Middle East peace process. Yet it is doubtful that Moscow has the resources, and the interest to boost its actual role in the troubled region.

In the most recent development, it was announced last on October 26 that Putinís envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Vasilii Sredin, who is Russian President's special representative on the Middle East, is to visit several Arab countries next week, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Itís not very likely that the talks in the seven capitals will focus only on the situation in Israel. Russia has a serious interest in solving the Iraqi crisis as well as developing relations with Iran. Both topics are likely to figure prominently on the agenda of Sredinís negotiations in these countries which have not been the closest Arab allies to Moscow.

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Duma Nationalists on the Situation in Israel

The standoff in Israel caused a number of nationalist members of the Duma to take positions reminiscent of the old days of the Soviet Union. Dmitriy Rogozin, a moderate nationalist who is serving as Chairman of the State Dumaís International Affairs Committee, characterized the situation as the war "Israel actually began against the Palestinians." Rogozin and other nationalists in the Duma (the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovskyís Liberal Democrats) accused Israel of thwarting the peace process, a stand that was reflected in the Duma resolution on the crisis.

In its October 31 statement on the situation in the Middle East, the Liberal Democratic Party of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky urged Russian President and the Government to "forcefully interfere with the Middle East settlement process using all the influence and political weight in practice now when the oppressed people of Palestine is awaiting."

In another development, Alexei Mitrofanov, a prominent lawmaker and a member of the Zhirinovsky party, proposed a motion that would force thousands of Russian Israelis to give up their Russian passports if they serve in the Israeli Army. (The Russian legislation does not prevent a Russian citizen from holding multiple citizenships although Russia does not have bilateral agreements with any of the foreign countries that would allow Russians to officially hold dual citizenship.) By introducing the motion, Mitrofanov, who is known as one of the most outspoken non-Communist nationalists in the lower house, implied that when serving in the Israeli army (and not just in any foreign army) Russian citizens betray the interests of Russia which never coincide with that of the Jewish state. Mitrofanovís hastily drafted proposal was not put to a vote as of this week.

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The Russian Media on the Crisis

At the start of violence between Palestinians and Israeli forces in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, most Russian mainstream newspapers displayed a neutral tone in response to the events. Some tried to offer their readers "even-handed" commentary (for example by running in the same edition full-page profiles of Barak and Arafat or by taking care to balance criticism of both sides in the conflict and emphasizing the importance for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to return to the peace process.)

At the same time, a number of Russiaís largest daily newspapers expressed serious criticism of the Kremlinís sluggish reaction to the crisis and Moscowís thinly-veiled attempt not to irritate its long-time allies in the Muslim world. (A leading Russian columnist went as far as to call the Kremlinís response to the situation in Israel reflective of the "tradition of [Russian] state and grassroot anti-Semitism.")

Many observers paid attention to a similarity between the issues of terrorism in Israel and in Russia with its war in Chechnya. This similarity, some leading papers believe, could have turned Russia into Israelís "natural ally" in the Middle East. It hasnít happened mainly because of Russiaís attitude toward the Jewish State that lingers since Soviet times, the Moscow daily Sevodnya wrote.

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Nationalist Response

On the other side of the political spectrum, various nationalist parties, mostly of left orientation, have voiced their unconditional support of the Palestinian cause in the conflict.

On November 1, a roundtable discussion on Russiaís possible engagement in the Middle East peace process took place in Moscow. The event was co-organized by the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Russia and the Communist Party-dominated group known as the Popular Patriotic Union of Russia. Along with prominent some Communists and the party leader Gennady Zyuganov, the list of attendees included representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the nationís predominant religion, and some Arab diplomats based in the Russian capital.

From the onset of the current Middle East crisis, two hard-line nationalist newspapers with the largest circulation of all non-liberally-tinted media, Zavtra and Sovetskaya Rossiya (combined circulation of about 150,000 copies a week,) have been painting pictures of Israelís atrocities against peaceful Palestinian youths and women as if taken from the pages of Pravda of 30 years ago.

A joint statement by two editors-in-chief, Alexander Prokhanov of Zavtra and Valeriy Chikin of Sovetskaya Rossia, published in both newspapers contained references to Yasir Arafat as the "proven leader of the Palestinians" who became victims of the "Biblical genocide" of Israel. The two editors went as far as to say that "Palestinians and Russians have the same strategic enemy - occupation, the same strategic goal - freedom and independence," implying that both Palestine and Russia suffer under "Zionist invaders.

In an October 17 editorial in Zavtra, Alexander Prokhanov wrote:

"Israel is doomed. [Ö] Red- hot Intifada is the fiery river, in which another myth of the 20th century melts and sinks to the bottom ó the theory of Zionism. According to designs of Herzl and Zhabotinsky, a small geopolitical monstrosity was created on the Arab lands. They have dragged there their tablets, as the ants drag eggs. They have imposed on America and Germany the annual tribute of five billions dollars. They pour napalm on the mosques and transform the whole nations into homeless survivors and refugees. They brainwash the whole world by their black dandruff, which they call Ďthe ashes of Auschwitzí.

On the place of Israel, the Arabs will plant many fig trees and Lebanese cedars, they will create a National park. It will be the home of the large pretty Hebrew-speaking parrot."

Unlike Prolkanov, other Russian nationalists, especially those on the far right of the political spectrum, seem to be largely indifferent to what is happening to Israeli-Arab relations.

A statement posted on the web-site of the National Republican Party of Russia of Yuri Belyaev, a small ultranationalist group, said that Russian nationalists support both conflicting parties in the Middle East because Russians consider neither Jews, nor Muslims their friends and therefore donít care who of them will win.

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Russian Public Attitudes toward the Crisis

A recent opinion poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, a leading polling firm in Moscow, showed that despite a historic bias against Israel that one may assume is still shared by many Russians, the actual picture is much more favorable.

  • Sixty-two percent of those asked in a nation-wide poll (10/14/00) said they were concerned by the situation in the Middle East.
  • Ten percent would place blame for the conflict on Israel, 8 percent on the Palestinian authorities, 37 percent on both sides equally.
  • Five percent said Russia should support Israel in this conflict, 6 percent - Palestinians and 52 percent believed Russia should not support either of the sides.

At the same time, the pollsters paid attention to the fact that many of those asked in the survey drew parallels between the Palestinian problem and the Chechen conflict (the issue of terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism etc.) and therefore felt little sympathy toward the Palestinian cause, just as most Russians are unsympathetic towards the Chechen guerillas fighting federal troops in this mountainous southern Russiaís republic.

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Anti-Semitic Incidents

In the October 31 edition of the nationalist weekly Zavtra, the newspaper published a brief remark by Adolph Shayevich, Russia's chief rabbi, who said that the Jews of Russia will be supportive of Israel even if Israel is ever forced to use its full military potential against Palestinians and the Arab world. "We will not consider this an act of aggression, because it is a question of saving the state, of its future," Shayevich was quoted as saying.

In an editorial commentary to this remark, Zavtra accused Rabbi Shayevich of intentionally stirring up anti-Semitism in Russia. By saying this, the newspaper effectively shifted responsibility for possible anti-Semitic outbreaks in Russia on Russian Jews, who, the newspaper implied, were unconditionally supportive of the Jewish State while many Russians felt strong anti-Israeli sentiments during the current conflict. (As we saw, sociological data do not support this point.)

Meanwhile, there have been no reports of any serious anti-Semitic incidents that could have been linked to the violence in the Middle East during the month of October. None of the incidents that were reported to have taken place during this period seem to have been linked to the tensions in Israel. Among the incidents that did take place were:

  • On October 8, a synagogue in the Caucasus republic of Daghestan was stoned
  • Same day, a Lubavitch synagogue in Moscow received telephone threats.
  • On October 19, vandals burned down a sukkah in the western Russian city of Kaliningrad a day after it was smeared with swastikas.

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Muslim Response

Russian is home to a multi-million Muslim community, the nationís second-largest religion. The Jewish community, which has traditionally good relations with the Russian Muslim leadership, expressed no concern over possible outbreaks of anti-Jewish hostility on the part of traditional Russian Muslims. Most of Russiaís traditional Muslim regions have avoided Islamic fundamentalism. The only possible threat to the Jewish community that exists, some Russian Jewish leaders believe, may come from radical Islamists either foreign-born or taught by foreign emissaries whose presence is becoming a more visible factor in Russia today.

Muslim leadership who in the past several months has voiced its serious concern over possible growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Russia, took a pro-peace stand on the current situation in the Middle East and refrained from criticizing Israel. Moreover, one of Russiaís two chief Muftis, Talgat Tadjutdin, harshly condemned the desecration of the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus by a Palestinian mob. Tadjutdin said that the "unresolved nature of the Palestinian statehood should by no means be used to justify such acts."

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