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By John Helmer, Moscow 

It has been eleven years since the Levada Centre, the independent national polling organisation in Moscow, reported a survey of Russian attitudes towards the Palestinians and the Israelis. “We had such a poll in 2010,” Denis Leven, a Levada sociologist, said yesterday. “I can’t say exactly if we are going to make another one in the near future. Now we focus on the events in Russia and neighbouring countries.”

This isn’t true; in recent weeks, Levada has polled Russians on their attitudes towards Turkey, the US, the European Union, China, as well as the states which Russians regard as enemies —  Great Britain, Poland, the Baltic states, Germany, France, Japan,  and Canada.

Speaking for the rival national pollster, the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM),  Diana Osyanina says “we aren’t planning to make a poll about this [Palestine-Israel] conflict because now we focus mostly on the domestic issues.” VTsIOM’s last published poll on the conflict appeared in January 2018; it focused on Russian views of whether Tel Aviv or Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. The majority couldn’t say.

Since the fighting began at the start of May, the mainstream Russian media report no public demonstrations anywhere in the country in support of either the Palestinians or the Israelis. The domestic media have not sent reporters to the areas of fighting; their news bulletins have been perfunctory and compiled from non-Russian sources. Military media such as Colonel Cassad and Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) have reported little. Vzglyad, reflecting Russian intelligence agency thinking, has published one hostile piece against the Palestinians,  one neutral situation report, and one technical military assessment of the drones which Hamas has been using at sea, off the Israeli coast, and against land targets, as well as the start of Iranian drone firing from Syria.*

The Russian Orthodox Church which has long maintained pilgrimage sites, churches and monasteries in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, said through its press spokesman Vladimir Legoida that it has issued no press release on the conflict or official statement from the Patriarch himself;  Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the department for external church relation; or the Church’s organs in Jerusalem.  

The Palestine state ambassador to Moscow, Abdel Hafiz Nofal, was reported by Tass on Tuesday (May 18) as calling for direct talks between Palestine and Israel in Moscow “at any time…even tomorrow because we are confident in Russia.” The next day he was asked how he explains the lack of public support for the Palestinians in Russia. He refuses to say.

The domestic media blackout on the fighting in Palestine is bound to reinforce the reluctance of Russians to express sympathy for one side or the other – or at least the appearance of reluctance, lack of information, or indifference.  The blackout – itself unreported in Russian and Arab media — may mask growing sympathy for the Palestinians and hostility towards Israel.

The annual polls Levada reported between 2007 and 2010 revealed a small but significant gain in Russian support for the Palestinians and a corresponding decline in sympathy for the Israelis. At the time, three-quarters of those polled refused to take sides.

Source: https://www.levada.ru/

In the past decade, Russian media reporting has publicized Israeli air attacks on Syria, as well as Mossad sabotage operations in Iran. The notorious air ambush of September 17, 2018, when the Israeli Air Force drew Syrian missile fire to down a Russian reconnaissance Ilyushin-20 aircraft, killing the 15 Russian crew, was explicitly blamed by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the General Staff on the Israelis, in contrast to President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to excuse them.

Already in 2010 public opinion was more hostile than supportive towards Israeli tactics in Gaza, more sympathetic to the ruling Palestinian party in Gaza, Hamas.  Blame for the violence in the region, according to the Russians who considered themselves informed on what was happening, was directed principally at the combination of the US,  Israel and NATO. Islamic fundamentalists trailed well behind; Palestinians were regarded as least to blame.

Source: https://www.levada.ru/

The VTsIOM poll of January 2018 revealed that the proportion of Russians favouring the Palestinian Arabs was double that of supporters of Israel on the issue of removing the Israeli capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, both groups remained significantly fewer than those who opted to have no opinion or believed Russia should not involve itself in the issue. Between support for the Israeli Jews and hostility towards them, VTsIOM reported there was a clearer tilt for the Israelis in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and against them in the rest of the country. Notwithstanding, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed opted to be neutral.

Source: https://wciom.ru/

With greater penetration now of the internet media in the big cities, video evidence of the attacks on the Palestinians is likely to have breached the mainstream print media blackout, denting  Israel’s support. However, the refusal of the national polling agencies to measure the direction of public opinion makes this a guess. The reason for the refusal of the pollsters to find out suggests government direction.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow has been issuing daily records of telephone conversations and meetings Russian officials have been holding with Palestinian party leaders. These have included Maher Taher of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative (al Mubadara). These groups have significant followings in the West Bank; both are opposed to the ruling Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. With these men, according to the communiqués, the Russian line was to promote multilateral “negotiations with the members of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators [US, EU, Russia, UN]”    and “international mediators with the assistance of the Quartet participants.”  The skepticism expressed by Taher and Barghouti towards the Quartet has not been recorded.

Left: Maher Taher of the PFLP; centre, Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative; right, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. A fluent Arabic speaker, Bogdanov has also held negotiations this week with officials from Syria and Saudi Arabia, while a colleague met with the Iranian ambassador.

On May 17, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged that US support for Israel was protracting the Israeli destruction of Gaza and stalling agreement on Quartet and United Nations Security Council ceasefire terms. “Direct talks are the only way forward,” between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, Lavrov said “if we want to agree on creating a Palestinian state, which, in accordance with UN decisions, would live side by side in peace and security with Israel and other countries in the region. For these talks to start, it is imperative to end the violence on all sides. We condemn the bombing of residential quarters from the Gaza Strip. Strikes against civilian targets on Palestinian territory are totally unacceptable. I think enough calls have been made to put an end to this situation immediately and to start talks. We highly appreciated Egypt’s mediation efforts. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has kept us informed about his exchanges with the parties. At some point, we thought he was close to achieving a result, but for some reason the desire to continue punishing people prevailed.”

“We operate on the premise that the international community should not be watching what’s going on passively. There’s a quartet of international mediators who are directly responsible for facilitating a solution to the Palestinian issue. The UN Security Council met yesterday. Several days have been wasted because the United States said it wasn’t ready to discuss the situation when it erupted. Nevertheless, the UN Security Council discussed the problem, opinions were expressed and messages sent. Now, everything depends on the parties’ ability to reach an agreement and their goodwill. We will do our best to help them reach an agreement on how to appease the ongoing dangerous phase of the conflict and to start direct talks as soon as possible.”

“For several years now, including at the request of the Israel, we have been standing ready to host direct talks between the leaders of Israel and Palestine on our territory. The other day I read an interview with the Ambassador of Israel to Russia Alexander Ben-Zvi. He said Israel has always been ready for direct talks between the Prime Minister of his country and the President of the Palestinian National Authority, without any preliminary conditions. He said so publicly. I would also like to publicly remind the ambassador that, with our assistance, an agreement to this end was reached several years ago. It was not acted upon back then, and it was not our fault.”

“It was not our fault” – this is as close to criticizing Israel as the Russian government has gone so far.

[*] The launch from the Gaza shore of a Hamas submarine drone was detected by the Israelis on May 17, and the weapon captured. The Israeli military were the sources for the Vzglyad report; it also claims that Iranian technology has been supplied to drone manufacturers in Gaza. An Iranian or Lebanese Hezollah firing of a drone from Syrian territory was also recorded. Vzglyad reports the Israeli accounts without asking for Palestinian response. Click to read.  

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