MOSCOW – Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders have agreed “in principle” to meet in Moscow for talks in what the Russians hope will relaunch the Mideast peace process after a more than two-year break.
But the wide gaps between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas left it uncertain if or when the meeting will take place, and raised doubts about whether they would make any progress if they do get together.
In another twist, an Israeli TV station reported that a document discovered by two Israeli researchers indicated that Abbas had worked for the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, while living in Syria in the early 1980s. The professors said they were coming forward with the information to discredit Moscow as an honest broker in peace talks.
After years of taking a back seat to the U.S. in Mideast diplomacy, Russia has increasingly sought to take a leadership role in the region. It has developed close ties with Iran and sent fighter jets to Syria to back President Bashar Assad in his war against rebel groups.
In Washington, a spokesman said the U.S. State Department is following the Russian efforts closely and would “be supportive” of any kind of effort to bring the parties together.
Thursday’s announcement in Moscow indicates that Russia is pushing forward with its attempt to become a peace broker after a setback earlier in the week. On Tuesday, Abbas said that a meeting scheduled in Moscow this week had been delayed at Israel’s request.
While bringing the men together would represent an accomplishment for Moscow, a diplomatic breakthrough seems unlikely.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remain far apart on key issues, and their differences have prevented meaningful talks since Netanyahu took office in 2009.
The last round of peace talks broke down two and a half years ago, with no progress reported during months of U.S.-brokered negotiations.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Abbas and Netanyahu had accepted an invitation to meet in the Russian capital, but a date has not been set yet. There also was no word on whether the two had settled on an agenda for the meeting — the key stumbling block in preparations.
“The most important thing is to pick the right timing,” Zakharova told reporters. “Intensive contacts on this are ongoing.”
Abbas and Netanyahu exchanged a brief handshake last year at a global climate change conference in Paris but have not held a public working meeting since 2010.
Before returning to talks, the Palestinian leader has demanded that Israel halt settlement construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians and carry out a prisoner release that was promised during the last round of talks.
Netanyahu has rejected the terms and said the meeting should take place without conditions.
“If the Palestinian Authority can say with one voice that they are willing to meet without preconditions, then Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet President Abbas,” said the Israeli leader’s spokesman, David Keyes.
Late Wednesday, Israel TV broadcast an interview with two Israeli researchers who said they had unearthed a document showing that Abbas served as a KGB agent in Syria in 1983.
The program showed a document that listed Abbas’ name, said he was born in “Palestine” in 1935, and identified him by the codename “Krotov,” which roughly translates as “mole.” Abbas was born in what was British-administered Palestine that year. His hometown of Safed is now in northern Israel.
The station said the information came from a trove of handwritten documents that Vasily Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist, brought with him when he defected to the U.K. in 1992.
Gideon Remez, one of the Hebrew University researchers, said the full archive was only opened to researchers by Cambridge University last year. He said the credibility was “very high.”
In the 1980s, Abbas was a top official in the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Soviet Union had close ties with both the PLO and Syria at the time. The station said Abbas may have been recruited while earning his doctorate in the Soviet Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was a senior KGB official around this time, and the Israeli station said that Russia’s Mideast envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov, was stationed in Damascus at the same time.
In an interview, researcher Remez said he decided to release the information now because of the Russian diplomatic initiative. He said he supports peace with the Palestinians but does not believe Putin can be an honest broker given Russia’s history in the region and close ties with Israeli adversaries Syria and Iran.
In the West Bank, Palestinian officials dismissed the report as an Israeli smear campaign.
“The Israeli government and its surrogates are using smoke and mirrors to confuse the public and deceive the international community in order to derail any efforts to revive the peace process, while appropriating more Palestinian land and building new illegal settlements,” said Jamal Dajani, a government spokesman.
If a meeting takes place, the chances for substantial progress would seem slim.
The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. While the Palestinian claims have wide international backing, Netanyahu has refused to use Israel’s pre-1967 lines as a basis for border talks, retreating from positions adopted by his predecessors.
The Palestinians have accused Israel’s hard-line government of seeking a “peace process” as a diplomatic shield against international criticism. The Netanyahu government has tried to discredit Abbas, accusing him of anti-Israel incitement and alleging he is not a partner for a peace deal.
Russia’s offer in recent weeks to host the Israeli and Palestinian leaders is one of several international initiatives, including a French plan to hold an international peace conference and Egyptian offers to bring the sides together as well.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We would obviously welcome any direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinian letters.” The U.N., Russia, the United States and European Union are members of the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators that has been trying for years to get Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a final peace settlement.