JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev endorsed a Palestinian state on Tuesday, saying Moscow had recognized independence in 1988 and was not changing the position adopted by the former Soviet Union.
Making his first visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank as Russian head of state, Medvedev stopped short of issuing a ringing declaration of recognition of Palestinian statehood by the modern Russian Federation which he represents.
“Russia’s position remains unchanged. Russia made its choice a long time ago ... we supported and will support the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to an independent state with its capital in East Jerusalem,” Medvedev said.
Israel has been alarmed in the past two months by a string of recognitions by Latin American states including Brazil and Argentina, which some analysts say could be a precursor to a move by the Palestinians to seek full United Nations membership if efforts to revive moribund peace negotiations fall through.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has confirmed that is one of his options. At a news conference with Medvedev in Jericho he thanked Russia for being “one of the first states in the world to recognize the state of Palestine in 1988.”
Communist Moscow recognized a Palestinian state declared by the late Yasser Arafat, in a move that won broad support in the Soviet bloc and developing world but had little real impact on diplomatic and political realities.
The Palestinians today say 109 states out of 192 United Nations member countries recognize their statehood. Israel has warned that a “unilateral declaration” of statehood would set back the peace process.
A senior Israeli intelligence official told a Knesset committee on Tuesday he expected more recognitions by the time of the U.N. General Assembly in September.
Medvedev drove into the Israeli-occupied West Bank in a road convoy from Amman airport in Jordan, crossing over the historic Allenby Bridge in an unusual route for a head of state that was dictated by an Israeli foreign ministry strike, which had forced him to cancel the Israel leg of his trip.
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.
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.
Medvedev drew applause from Palestinians when he noted that “this is the first visit of a Russian president to Palestine not united with a visit to another country” -- a clear reference to Israel which would normally have been his first stop.
Russia is a partner of the United States, European Union and United Nations in “the Quartet” of international powers overseeing Middle East peace negotiations.
A number of former Soviet bloc east European states that are now in the EU also recognized Palestine in 1988. But the United States and west European governments do not.
Quartet foreign ministers were 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 but has ground to a halt due to a dispute over Israel’s West Bank settlements policy.
Medvedev said this was the main topic of his talks.
“We discussed the possible prospectives of resuming the dialogue. In order to do that, we need to express maximum moderation. This in the first place relates to the freezing of settlement activity of Israel on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem,” he said.
Israel apologized 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.
The last presidential visitor from Moscow was Medvedev’s predecessor Vladimir Putin, now the Russian prime minister, in 2005. Medvedev expressed his understanding for the cancellation, saying it would not harm relations with Israel.
He was due to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah later on Tuesday.
Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk and Tom Perry; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Ralph Boulton
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