Putin visits West Bank, tours key Christian shrine

Putin praised his Palestinian counterpart and said Russia has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state.

Updated: Jun 27, 2012, 09:27 AM IST

Bethlehem: Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his Palestinian counterpart on 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. "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 UN 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 today 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.

PTI