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 continued Israeli settlement expansion on war-won land - is not constructive.
Putin 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 any time, but refuses to halt construction in Jewish settlements on lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. 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.
"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 so-called Quartet of mediators that also 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 Israelis and the Palestinians.
With negotiations frozen, Abbas has sought to increase Palestinian leverage by seeking UN recognition of a state of Palestine according to the pre-1967 war frontiers. 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 border deal with Israel.
Abbas reiterated Tuesday that negotiations with Israel remain his key goal. He said he asked Putin for help in persuading Israel to release veteran Palestinian prisoners who've been in jail since before the interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals of the mid-1990s.
On Monday, Putin met with Netanyahu who urged Russia to step up pressure on Iran to curb its suspect nuclear program. Putin said his talks with Netanyahu covered the situation in Iran and the bloody uprising in Syria, but added that he saw negotiations as the only solution for such matters.
At a state dinner later Monday, 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.
With close ties to Iran and a vote on the powerful UN Security Council, Russia is seen as an important player who 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 condemnations for his bloody crackdown on the country's armed uprising.
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