BETHLEHEM/ JERUSALEM (EJP) ---Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday for what he said was a “responsible” position in negotiations with Israel and said Russia has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state.
Putin appeared to direct veiled criticism of Israel, by saying he was “sure that unilateral actions are not constructive” – a seeming reference to continued Israeli settlement activity on disputed territory.
The Russian President began the second day of his Middle East state visit with a trip to Bethlehem, where he was welcomed by Mahmoud Abbas as “the great guest of Palestine”.
On his first official visit to the Palestinian territories, he was presented with the renaming of one of Bethlehem’s main roads in his honour.
He also inaugurated a Russian cultural and language centre in Bethlehem and toured the church built over the traditional birth grotto of Jesus.
As a member of the Middle East Quartet, Putin’s visit to the Palestinian territories has been greeted with open arms, especially as compared with the three other members of the body (the US, the EU and the UN) of which former British prime minister Tony Blair is the Mideast envoy, Russia is historically seen as the most sympathetic to the Palestinian side.
This support dates back to 1988, which saw the Palestine Liberation Organisation issue a statehood declaration, which the former Soviet Union was one of the first countries to recognise. Putin was keen to declare himself ready to recognise a modern-day Palestinian State, saying that “as the legal successor of the Soviet Union...we did so 25 years ago and our position has not changed”.
Abbas has meanwhile ought to force Israel’s hand in the deadlocked peace process by going directly to the UN to seek official Palestinian statehood based on 1967 borders.
The US and Israel have urged restraint from the Palestinian leader, insisting his needs can be better met by pursuing a two state solution in face-to-face talks.
Stressing as he had the day before in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the need to return to peace talks, Putin said in his meeting with Abbas: “In light of the events in the Middle East, we see great importance in resolving old conflicts. We call on all sides to resume negotiations – it is the only solution to the problem.”
Netanyahu had asked Putin in their meeting on Monday to convey his call to peace to Bethlehem, saying: "The key to peace is complex but in the end it is very simple: Either [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas must come here or I must go to him and I am willing for either of these possibilities to occur, however we must begin to talk".
Netanyahu, who has called for peace talks without preconditions, said he is open to return to talks any time, but refuses to halt settlement activity on disputed lands.
The Israeli leader had asked Putin in their meeting on Monday to convey his call to peace to Bethlehem. “There is a slight difference between us that we discussed prior to beginning the press conference. Mr. President, when you want to visit a neighboring country, you usually fly from Moscow for several hours. Our neighborhood is much smaller. Tomorrow, you will meet with President Abbas in Bethlehem, which is a four to five minute drive from here. Ramallah is only ten minute's drive from here.
He continued: “The key to peace is complex but in the end it is very simple: Either Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas must come here or I must go to him and I am willing for either of these possibilities to occur, however we must begin to talk. I hope you convey this simple message tomorrow during your meeting in Bethlehem. “
Abbas reiterated on Tuesday that negotiations with Israel remain his key goal but he slammed Netanyahu’s open call for direct negotiations, describing it as “merely PR”.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak had insinuated last month a unilateral approach to the situation might be the only option available should peace talks with the Palestinians remain stalled.
Putin was due to travel to Jordan later on Tuesday for talks with the country’s leaders.