Football Diplomacy: Russian President Invites Abbas AND Netanyahu to World Cup Final in Moscow

News has broken that Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and “Israeli” leader Benjamin Netanyahu to the World Cup Final which will be held in Moscow on the 15th of July. While neither leader has confirmed attendance, the move is clearly one designed to informally initiate Russian involvement in the long-stalled peace process for Palestine.

After Donald Trump unilaterally recognised Jerusalem/Al-Quds as the capital of “Israel”, Palestine vowed to refuse any future mediation role by the United States in the ongoing conflict in occupied Palestine. Subsequently, Palestinian diplomats and politicians have suggested replacing US mediation with multilateral efforts where nations from Asia, Africa and Europe could all work together as part of an effort to negotiate some kind of settlement to one of the world’s longest running crises.

 

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Russia is in a unique position of being on equally good terms with both Palestine and “Israel” and consistently, Russia has been frequently suggested by many, including the Palestinian leadership as one of several replacements as a mediator. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has many personal connections with Russia, having been educated in the Soviet Union, while spending much of his youth in Moscow. Likewise, Putin and Netanyahu enjoy a close personal friendship that culminated in the latter participating in Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on the 9th of May, where along with Serbian President Vučić, he marched in the Immortal Regiment beside President Putin and millions of Russians whose lost loved one’s in the Great Patriotic War against fascism.

Unlike Kim Jong-un whose love of basketball led to a friendship between un-official peace ambassador Dennis Rodman of American NBA fame, Abbas and Netanyahu clearly have other things on their mind than football. Nevertheless, as neither has a team in the World Cup, the politically neutral event could be an opportunity for the leaders to exchange views in an informal setting, thereby testing the waters for future peace talks in Russia.

It is incredibly important to realise that Putin’s invite has been extended at a time when Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner is travelling across the Middle East in attempts to refine the yet unpublished so-called peace plan that the Trump administration has dubbed “The deal of the century”. Far form actually being a deal of the century, leaked excepts which have been seen by Palestinian officials have led to a rejection of the deal by Palestine. In short, the deal is more or less dead on arrival in spite of US efforts to promote a narrative to the contrary.

 

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While Moscow has not offered any concrete opinions on the Trump-Kushner deal, days ago, Russia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin told local anti-Zionist media the following:

“The deal of century is a matter of surrender. It’s not peace. Israel’s calculations which suit with some Arab states don’t match with the condition of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine”.

This offers an indication that one of Russia’s ambassadors to a deeply anti-Zionist state has offered a statement in what appears to be an official capacity that the American peace plan is seen as unsuitable from a Russian perspective. In this sense, Russia’s ambassadors to various regimes are able to play a rhetorical game of good cop/bad cop by revealing a portion (key word) of Russia’s holistic position on the Palestinian issue. Then officials in Moscow itself, up to and including President Putin can consolidate the excerpts of Russia’s holistic view which were effectively ‘sneak previewed’ by regional ambassadors in order to reveal a position that ultimately seeks to balance concerns of both Al-Quds and Tel Aviv.

In this sense, Putin’s warm embrace of Netanyahu  on the 9th of May combined with pro-Palestinian statements from key Russian officials stationed in the Middle East, sets the stage for what could be the third most important handshake of the year after those between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in and the subsequent one between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

 

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If Putin is able to pull off what is still an unlikely football summit between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, it could lead to the development of a more serious peace process where Russia would play a central mediating role. At minimum though, if both Netanyahu and Abbas do come to Moscow for the World Cup Final, it would mean that Russia is capable of getting the two rival leaders to do something that few if any other country could get them to do – put aside years of bloodshed and talk peace inside a crowded football stadium. This alone would be a substantial diplomatic coup for Russia.

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