The Russian ambassador to the United Nations has proposed that Security Council members visit the Middle East amid stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and ongoing protests in Egypt.
Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters on Tuesday that the details and itinerary of the trip remained in the planning stages, but that the mission is important because the 15-member council, empowered with maintaining international peace and security, has not visited the Middle East in more than three decades.
The Russian initiative is being presented at a time when the Palestinians are actively promoting several UN initiatives of their own, including a Security Council resolution condemning the construction of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
They are also gathering supporters in the UN in the hopes of obtaining a unilateral declaration of statehood by September.
Israel has condemned any unilateral efforts to resolve the crisis.
In addition to visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Russia is proposing that the Security Council trip also include Egypt, which has entered its third week of violent anti-government protests, as well as Lebanon and Syria.
Russia, together with the United States, European Union and UN, is a member of the so-called Quartet on the Middle East, which is mediating the peace process between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
On Saturday, Quartet negotiators released a statement following their meeting in Munich that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations must continue due to the ongoing political turmoil in Egypt, arguing that “further delay in the…negotiations is detrimental to the prospects for regional peace and security.”
The announcement came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had attempted to delay the Quartet’s meeting in light of Egypt’s political troubles.
The Quartet stressed that the aim of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is the creation of a Palestinian state by September.
The attendees of the Munich meeting, who included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Quartet's envoy Tony Blair, and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU Catherine Ashton, said they “regretted” Israel's decision to end a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the contested neighborhoods of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Churkin said such a visit could jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have stalled once again over Palestinian objections to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Israeli apprehension over Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
"We think that the Security Council could play a role in helping [the peace process] move ahead," the Russian ambassador said, adding that such a mission has not taken place since 1979.
The militant Islamist group Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, controls Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank.
Heat on Netanyahu
Meanwhile, Haaretz reports that diplomats at the UN on Tuesday were “harshly critical of Israel's ongoing failure to appoint a permanent ambassador to the UN,” saying it has “essentially forfeited the arena to the Palestinians.”
Israel is presently represented in the United Nations by an acting ambassador, Meron Reuben, but he “lacks the authority of a permanent representative,” the Israeli daily reported.
After months of delaying the nomination, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman finally settled on Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan. But much to their embarrassment, Erdan turned down the job this week.
This did not reflect kindly on Netanyahu in international diplomatic circles.
"A prime minister who was a UN ambassador ought to know how important the UN is to Israel, especially at the height of an assault on its legitimacy," said one former senior Western ambassador, as quoted by Haaretz.
Netanyahu served as Israel's ambassador to the UN from 1984 until 1988.
At the very least, Jerusalem expects the Security Council to issue a harsh statement condemning Israel's settlement policy.
“The combination of the lack of Israeli-Palestinian talks and Jerusalem's rocky relationship with the White House have brought Israel's standing at the UN to an almost unprecedented low,” Haaretz, quoting another UN diplomat, wrote, suggesting that this is probably why “Erdan didn't want the job.”
Now with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been a force for stability in the Middle East, facing the toughest challenge to his 30-year rule, Israel fears that something much less attractive will fill the political void should he fall from power.
Thus, the timing of Churkin’s proposal for a UN Security Council visit to the region seems to be an entirely appropriate one. Whether or not it will work is an altogether different question.