The Palestinian leader’s defection caught both Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Binyamin unprepared – and surprised their intelligence agencies. Putin and Abbas almost certainly planned in advance to drop their bombshell on the day both Kerry and Netanyahu were otherwise engaged at two international events in Switzerland, Geneva 2 on Syria and the World Economic Forum.
For the Russian leader it was a chance to show the international community and the Obama administration that he was several steps ahead of the game on the three hottest Middle East issues – Iran’s nuclear program, the Syrian civil conflict and the Palestinian bid for statehood.
The first intimation that something big was up came from an ITAR-TASS agency report that Abbas and Medvedev were due to sign an intergovernmental agreement for a $1 billion natural gas project in the Gaza section of the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom hoped to produce 30 billion cubic metres of natural gas at the site.
The report added that Russia’s Technopromexport engineering firm was also considering a small oil development project near the West Bank city of Ramallah, hub of the Palestinian Authority government headed by Abbas.
The Palestinian leader began his conversation with Putin by calling Russia a “great power” that deserved to play a more prominent role in the volatile Middle East region.
Clearly taken aback by the news coming in fast from Moscow, Israeli official sources said night they could not understand how the Russians and Palestinians came to an agreement on Mediterranean waters off the shores of Gaza, when the rights were already owned by British Gas.
It did not occur to them that the deal Russia proposed to sign with the Palestinians was designed to be an extension of the Russian-Syrian oil exploration contract signed on Dec. 27 in Moscow.
This move confronts Israel with two troubling concerns:
1. Russian interests could potentially encircle Israel’s offshore Mediterranean gas and oil sites and Russian pipelines may block Israel’s export facilities.
2. Under international law, the Palestinian Authority is not recognized as an independent state and is therefore not empowered to establish Special Economic Zones in the Mediterranean as closed areas for prospecting for oil or gas. This was one of the topics placed on the agenda of the peace talks led by John Kerry.
However, Moscow has high-handedly circumvented this obstruction by taking charge of the offshore exploration opposite Gaza, thereby proffering its Palestinian partner to the deal implicitl Russian recognition of its status as an independent national entity authorized to sign international contracts. This could be the precedent for a process of creeping Palestinian statehood without engaging Israel in negotiation.
Moscow has already proved it can get away with busting international sanctions by concluding a $1.5 bn contract with Tehran for the purchase of half a million barrels of Iranian oil a day, without incurring a word of complaint from Washington.
Two weeks later, Putin and Abbas have acted together to wreck a painstaking US diplomatic initiative actively partnered by Israel for a negotiated peace accord with the Palestinians. They have left John Kerry and Binyamin Netanyahu holding an empty shell.
Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Fatah veteran, could not have put the situation more bluntly when he said night that it was time to “end the American monopoly on peacemaking, after Washington had proved incapable of imposing agreements on Israel.”
Russian tactics for Syria and Iran had proved effective, he said, and there was no reason why Moscow could not perform the same function on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
The Palestinians have clearly opted to follow the examples of other Middle East leaders, ranging from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Syria’s Bashar Assad, Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, in making tracks, overtly or covertly, to Moscow. They are opening the door for Russia to fill the void left by American disengagement from region under the Obama administration.