Russian President Vladimir Putin was given a royal welcome on his first official visit to the Palestinian territories Tuesday.
Arriving in Bethlehem, Putin visited the Church of the Nativity and inaugurated a Russian cultural center. Palestinian media was jubilant at the visit, calling it “historic” and dubbing the Russian leader “the great guest of Palestine.” A main road in Bethlehem was even named “Putin” to commemorate the visit, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.
Putin’s visit to the Palestinian territories comes at a particularly tense time in relations between Russia and the Arab world. Reports of Russian military support for the Syrian government crackdown are being highlighted in Arab media, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been increasingly vocal during the past few weeks in condemning Russia. Worldwide demonstrations outside Russian embassies took place on June 13. Syrians have been burning the Russian flag in protest against Russia’s support for President Bashar Assad.
During their talks, Abbas asked his Russian counterpart to place pressure on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and halt settlement building. Abbas told Palestinian media that direct negotiations with Israel are the only road to peace, and proposed holding an international peace summit in Moscow.
The issues of Syria and Iran’s nuclear drive, raised in Monday’s meeting between Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not dominate, if indeed they were even mentioned at Abbas’s meeting with the Russian leader. Instead, it was the Palestinian issue that was highlighted. Abbas called Netanyahu’s open invitation to meet him face-to-face “merely PR,” and said the Palestinian leadership rejected it, Palestinian daily Al-Quds reported.
Putin stressed the need for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as a precondition for peace, adding that “as the legal successor of the Soviet Union” Russia did not object to recognizing an independent Palestinian state.
Abbas thanked Putin for his stance on Palestinian reconciliation, stating that the hurdle for achieving it was the rival factions’ disagreement on a mechanism for elections. “We know the Russian interest in reconciliation and I stressed the fact that we are going in that direction. If a date for legislative and presidential elections is set, this will be the gateway to reconciliation,” Abbas said.
On Monday, Netanyahu urged Putin to step up pressure on Iran to curb its suspect nuclear program. Putin said his talks with Netanyahu covered the situation in Iran and the bloody uprising in Syria, but added that he saw negotiations as the only solution for such matters.
At a state dinner on Monday evening, President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he “raise his voice” against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a “national interest” to secure peace and quiet in Israel.
Putin also warned that a decision to attack the Islamic Republic should not be taken lightly. “Look what happened to America in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Putin said. “I told Obama also. You don’t need to jump to things too early, you don’t need to act before thinking. In Iraq there is a pro-Iranian government after everything that happened there. You need to think well before doing something you’ll be sorry about.”