Putin visits West Bank, tours key Christian shrine

By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH,Associated Press Updated at 2012-06-26 18:14:52 +0000


BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his Palestinian counterpart Tuesday for what he said was a "responsible" position in negotiations with Israel, frozen for nearly four years, and said Russia has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state.

Putin also offered veiled criticism of Israel, saying unilateral actions — an apparent reference to Israeli settlement construction on war-won land — is not constructive.

The Russian president spoke at the end of a visit to the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by his side. Putin inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem and toured the church built over the traditional birth grotto of Jesus.

Israeli-Palestinian talks on the terms of Palestinian statehood broke off in 2008. Repeated efforts to restart them have failed because of wide gaps between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas.

Netanyahu says he is ready to resume talks but rejects preconditions. Abbas says there's no point negotiating as long as Israel keeps building for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied territories the Palestinians want for a state, along with the Gaza Strip. Israel has moved half a million settlers to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since the 1967 war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

"We talked about ways of overcoming the dilemma of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," Putin said Tuesday. "I point out here the responsible position of President Abbas and his endeavor to reach a peaceful settlement based on a two-state settlement."

"I am sure that all unilateral actions are not constructive," he added.

Russia is an important Mideast player, in part because it is a member of the "Quartet" of mediators that includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Of the four, Russia is seen as the most sympathetic to the Palestinians but has little sway over the group, because the United States has traditionally claimed the dominant role in mediating between the two sides.

With negotiations frozen, Abbas has sought to increase Palestinian leverage by seeking U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine. Palestinian diplomats have also toured the world in search of recognition of Palestine by individual countries.

Dozens of countries, including the former Soviet Union, did so after a 1988 statehood declaration by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Putin said Tuesday that Russia sticks by that decision. The United States and Israel have urged Abbas to halt all attempts to seek recognition of a Palestinian state and wait for a deal with Israel.

Abbas reiterated Tuesday that negotiations with Israel remain his key goal.

Later Tuesday, Putin traveled to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II. Officials said they talked about the bloodshed in Syria, stalled Mideast peace efforts, Iran's nuclear program, Russian assistance to Jordan to build a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes and modernizing an oil terminal in the Gulf of Aqaba.

With close ties to Iran and a vote on the U.N. Security Council, Russia is seen as an important player that could influence Tehran, though it has in the past watered down international pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Russia is also one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's closest allies. Assad has drawn international condemnation for his bloody crackdown on the country's armed uprising.

In the meeting, Abdullah called for a "political solution to the crisis in Syria that would protect the unity and stability of the country and end the violence and bloodshed," a Royal Palace statement said. He said that a solution must have an "Arab and international consensus."

Putin and the king met in a conference hall on the shores of the Dead Sea. Later, Putin inaugurated a Russian guesthouse in the baptismal site in the nearby Jordan River, where tradition says Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Jordan's banned Tahrir, or Liberation Party, condemned Putin as an "enemy who is not welcome in Jordan."

It called Putin "an arch enemy of Islam and Muslims," citing his close ties with Assad. "His visit to Jordan is an arrogant challenge to the feeling of Muslims and a disdain of innocent blood shed in Syria."

On Monday, Putin met Netanyahu, who urged Russia to step up pressure on Iran to curb its suspect nuclear program.

At a state dinner Monday, Israeli President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he "raise his voice" against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a "national interest" to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further.


Additional reporting by Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan.