Russian President Dmitry Medvedev drove into Israel-occupied West Bank on Tuesday, for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on reviving the moribund Middle East peace process. His convoy, from Amman airport in Jordan, crossed over the historic Allenby Bridge, in an unusual route for a head of state.
The route was charted as a result of an Israeli foreign ministry strike which forced him to cancel the Israel leg of his trip. Palestinian officials said they could not remember when a visitor of that level had used the Allenby crossing, which was shut down to normal traffic for the occasion.
The crossing is controlled by Israeli immigration and security.
Russia is part of "the quartet" of international powers overseeing the Middle East peace negotiations, though the United States plays the dominant role in diplomacy that has ground to a halt due to a dispute over Israel's settlement policy.
"It is crucial for us to continue our work with the Middle East quartet ... to revive the talks," said a Kremlin official, speaking on the eve of Tuesday's talks in Jericho. The quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- is due to meet next month, in Munich, to discuss ways to revive the Middle East peace process, which has been a foreign policy priority for U.S. President Barack Obama.
Palestinian security men were out in force and curious crowds lined the streets of Jericho to watch the convoy enter the Biblical town north of the Dead Sea, at the lowest point on earth, which has been inhabited for over 10,000 years.
SUPPORT ON SETTLEMENT FREEZE
Abbas pulled out of face-to-face talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September when he refused to impose new curbs on settlement building in the West Bank, part of the territories where the Palestinians aim to found an independant state.
U.S. officials are now holding separate talks with both the sides. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Medvedev's visit was "a message of support" for Abbas. Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio that Moscow had stated its support for a resolution condemning Israeli settlement building which the Palestinians aim to put before the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds veto power.
"Russia confirmed that it would support this effort ... in addition to China and the rest of the states despite the fact that the United States informed us that it does not want us to go to the Security Council," he said.
Abbas's Palestinian Authority is also pursuing a global diplomatic campaign for recognition of Palestinian statehood, seeking to add as many countries as possible to the 108 that already recognise it by the time the United Nations General Assembly convenes in September this year.
Israel has warned that a "unilateral declaration" of statehood would set back the peace process. Israel apologised to the Kremlin for having to cancel Medvedev's first trip when foreign ministry diplomats who would normally prepare it, stepped up their strike action last month to win better pay and conditions.
Medvedev expressed his understanding, saying it would have no negative impact on relations. The last presidential visitor to the region from Moscow was Medvedev's predecessor Vladimir Putin, now the Russian prime minister, in 2005.