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Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on Trip to Moscow and Palestine, April 26-May 3, 2015

May 5, 2015

Elders Kofi Annan, Martti Ahtisaari, Ernesto Zedillo, Gro Brundtland, Lakhdar Brahimi, and I joined Elders CEO Lesley-Anne Knight and the staff for a visit to Russia, and then Gro Brundtland and I went on to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our goals were to learn about Russians and the issues in which they are involved, and to explore latest developments among the Israelis and Palestinians.

Russia - April 26-29

In Moscow, we were briefed by U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, the Finnish ambassador, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, and Mikhail Gorbachev, before our final meeting with President Vladimir Putin and the foreign minister.

Contrary to the impression derived from Western media, Moscow seemed to be thriving, preparing for an enormous May 9 parade celebrating the Soviets' victory over Nazi Germany. Shops were filled with buttons, T-shirts, and photos honoring President Putin, whose popularity has now risen to 87 percent. Lately the strengthening of the ruble has been substantial, and Russia's reaching out to China has been mentioned by most of our contacts.

Some interesting Russian comments, not attributed:

"Since the Ukraine crisis, Putin has moved strongly toward a "Greater Eurasia" concept, especially enhancing relations with China. Both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un will be attending the May 9 celebration, while most Western nations will not participate."

"The Minsk II agreement among Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia was good for Putin."

All Russian contacts claimed that leaders in Kiev are obstructing progress, although there are many uncertainties and questions about sequence of moves and exact implications regarding economic and social issues.

"Russia wants to implement all aspects of the Minsk agreement, including a government of national unity, but with equal treatment for Eastern Ukrainians."

"What Putin wants is control of the Ukraine-Russia border and a federal form of government under a new constitution."

"There is almost complete government control of Russian news media. Imposition of sanctions has boosted Putin's popularity by at least 25 percent. He probably wants them to continue until the 2018 election."

"Russia's economic crisis is not caused by the sanctions or drop in oil prices, but by the lack of a fundamental reform of the system, more diversity and competition, and rooting out of government corruption. It is not easy for this to be articulated now."

"After the Cold War, Russia reached out to the West but was rebuffed by the European Union and others. The United States wanted to dominate."

"Putin wants the world to be reminded that Russia is a nuclear power like the United States, and to be respected as such."

"He especially objects to former Soviet states going into NATO, but can probably accept others doing so who were formerly in the Soviet orbit."

"He identifies himself strongly with the established church."

"Russians believe the European Union will decide to lift sanctions if they realize that it is Kiev leaders who are obstructing Minsk II."

"Regarding Iran nuclear talks, the United States really wanted an agreement. John Kerry was there 12 full days, while Lavrov made just a couple of visits."

"Russia has always maintained, correctly, that Bashar al-Assad would have to be included in a final settlement in Syria, while the United States' assumption was that he could not be included, and many assumed he would only last a short time. The United States has been a major contributor to the sustained Syrian crisis."

"Putin has held two meetings this year with key representatives from Syria, and there may soon be another, and many of them accept the 'Moscow Platform.' They believe that Iran must be included eventually."

"They report that Kerry earlier agreed on the need for a top-level conference to deal with Syria, to include the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Russia."

"With Arab bombing in Yemen, only Al Qaeda is now gaining influence."

"Since the Cold War, the role of the European Union has increased, while the United States has striven for a 'unipolar' society with Europe under its control for the next 50 years. Russia and others just wanted to be treated as equals."

"The Islamic states have been the biggest problem in recent years."

"After Maidan (Kiev crisis), Crimea feared repression from Kiev and called out to Russia, and we responded. The same challenge exists in Eastern Ukraine."

"As the United States has created chaos despite good intentions to establish democracy (as in Libya and Iraq), it is a reminder of Trotsky - good intentions and bad results."

"ISIS is winning overall and recruiting support because "victors attract people."

After these preliminary conversations, we met for about two and a half hours with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and Foreign Policy Assistant Yuri Ushakov and had a lively exchange of views on many of the issues mentioned above, especially Ukraine, relations with the European Union, the economies of Ukraine and Russia, Syria, and the nuclear talks with Iran. The president was strong, confident, friendly, and completely in charge of the Russian comments. Toward the end of our meeting, somewhat humorously, he said that Russia was deriving too much benefit from long- overdue reforms forced by the economic sanctions to have them ended too soon. The reactions of the financial and agricultural systems would have lasting benefits if permitted to continue long enough to be thoroughly accepted. He then asked that I deliver a message to American officials, which I have done.

Palestine - April 29-May 3

From Moscow, Gro Brundtland and I proceeded to East Jerusalem with Lesley-Anne Knight and the Elders' staff, where we met Carter Center field director Nathan Stock. We had planned meetings with Hamas leaders in Gaza, but serious security threats caused a regrettable last-minute cancellation of this visit. Instead, we had thorough briefings from U.N. officials, nongovernmental organization leaders, and others about the dire straits of the 1.8 million Palestinians living there, perhaps half of whom are Fatah supporters. Of the 20,000 homes destroyed by Israeli bombs and rockets during the 51-day conflict last year, not one has been repaired. Only one-sixtieth of the cement and other needed building materials are being permitted to enter the imprisoned area. Officials from the U. N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East report that no materials under their supervision ever have been used for tunneling or other illicit purposes; but the severe limitations on entry are still maintained by Israel and Egypt.

The unification agreement negotiated last April - with a nonpartisan technocratic government between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas - has not been implemented. But implementation could help to alleviate the problem. I had obtained a commitment from Hamas leader Meshaal last month in Qatar to work out the problems, possibly in a session to be convened in Saudi Arabia, and I planned to seek agreement from President Abbas to attend.

Seventy-two percent of Gazans are refugees, with 860,000 on food assistance and 45 percent unemployed. Only about 25 percent of pledged rebuilding funds have been delivered, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Germany, United States, and Japan, with practically none from the European Union. (Qatar and Kuwait give directly, not through the United Nations.) Palestinian Prime Minister Hamdallah and the deputy prime minister have visited Gaza since the bombardment, but not President Abbas.

Our first meeting in Ramallah was with Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amr, who was thoroughly familiar with previous efforts to unite Palestinian factions. These have been opposed by Israel and the United States, but they also lack full support from Palestinians.

While we had not sought a meeting with Prime Minster Netanyahu or members of his government, we were disappointed when President Reuben Rivlin declined to continue the sessions we always had with his predecessor, President Shimon Peres. Rivlin's decision supposedly was caused by recent political pressures. We enjoyed meetings with Secretary General Hilik Bar of the Labor Party, who pointed out that total right-wing votes in the recent Israeli election actually declined, and the new votes for Netanyahu came at the last minute from parties to his right because he pledged no Palestine state and raised the threat of a massive tide of Arab-Israeli voters. Secretary General Bar maintains that at least half of Israeli Jews support a two-state peace agreement if the nation's security is assured.

Our next visit was to kibbutz Nir Am, which is adjacent to Gaza. Although the 40-acre village has been hit by many rockets over the years, the residents are strong supporters of sustained peace efforts and a chance to relate harmoniously with their Arab neighbors, as they had done since their founding in 1943.

We met with the former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel, and other prominent Israelis who comprise the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum. They are encouraging other governments to recognize a Palestine state, in addition to the 140 or so who already have done so. We discussed a U.N. Security Council resolution being drafted by France that will prescribe potential time limits and conditions for a final resolution of the conflict. United States influence in Israel and Palestine is at low ebb, and the European nations are expected to play an increasingly important role. There seems to be a lot of confidence in E.U. High Representative Federica Mogherini.

Both U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro (responsible for Israel) and Consul General Michael Ratney (responsible for Palestine) gave us thorough briefings, and we hosted about 25 foreign diplomats in our American Colony Hotel quarters.

During our final day, most of our sessions were in Ramallah, where we had extensive discussions with civil society leaders and key PLO leaders, including Nabil Shaath, Mohammed Shtayyeh, Husam Zumlot, Mustafa Barghouti, Majida Al-Masri, Basam Salhi, and Omar Shehada. They gave us extensive and sound advice, but we noticed a disturbing animosity toward Hamas.

There is one interesting conspiracy theory: Since Israelis originally created Hamas as a counter to Arafat's PLO, Netanyahu now plans to create an independent and peaceful Hamas in a geographically expanded Gaza and absorb the remaining Palestinians into a single state with Jews as a majority. (This week the newspaper Haaretz bolstered this theory by reporting secret moves toward a long-term Israeli-Hamas ceasefire.) An enlarged and peaceful Gaza could become quite successful. The key is for Hamas and Fatah to remain at odds.

After Brundtland and I laid a wreath on Arafat's tomb, we met with President Abbas. Our conversation was concentrated on Palestinian affairs, since the relationship with Israel regarding peace talks is moot with the prospect of a relatively extreme Israeli government. Abbas saw no need to accept my proposal of a possible meeting in Riyadh with Hamas leaders to implement the April 14 unity agreement, maintaining that he already had accepted it, and the key issues were whether Hamas would agree to elections for president and parliamentary seats and to full restoration of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Israeli approval of the election process would be unlikely, but I promised to make an effort to get an answer from Hamas leaders Haniyah or Meshaal. Surprisingly, Abbas said he was ready to convene the long-awaited Interim Leadership Framework, including the Executive Committee of the PLO and representatives of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. This would provide a crucial forum for making decisions affecting PLO and non-PLO factions.

We then returned to East Jerusalem for several news interviews and a final press conference before returning home. Our visit was both interesting and informative, and we achieved some of our goals. We met no one who believed there was any viability in the overall peace process, so internal and international Palestinian issues will be paramount.

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