Walter Russell Mead: “History has few examples of a weak power like Russia making so many gains against so powerful a country as the United States. For the leader of an ex-global power whose economy is in disarray, Vladimir Putin is having a pretty good 2016. His ships sail the South China Sea, supporting China’s defiance of international law. The Japanese Prime Minister brushes Washington’s protests aside to meet with him. Putin’s Russia digs itself more thoroughly into Crimea each week, a Permanent Member of the Security Council in open and glaring violation of the UN Charter and its own pledged word. He’s watching the European Union grow weaker and less cohesive each day. And in Syria he forced the Obama administration to grovel for a ceasefire deal that leaves him, Putin, more in control than ever, and tacitly accepts his long term presence as a major player in the Middle East. Watching the State Department pursue its Syria negotiation with Russia was surreal: as if Robert E. Lee had to chase Ulysses Grant around Northern Virginia, waving a surrender document in his hands and begging Grant to sign it.”
Tom Gross: More details below of Abbas’s extensive operational activities for the KGB
1. “Holidays from history”
2. President Abbas, ex-KGB agent, whose handler is now Putin’s Mideast envoy
3. Abbas’s extensive operational activities for the KGB
4. A role for Luxembourg?
5. “Palestine expects meeting with Israel in Moscow later this year” (Tass, Sep 13, 2016)
6. “Lavrov warns against provocations in Golan Heights” (Tass, Sep 13, 2016)
7. “Assad’s attack on Israel intended to defend his honor, not country” (By Amos Harel, Haaretz, Sep 14, 2016)
8. “Russia re-emerges as a Great Power in the Middle East” (By Walter Russell Mead, Hudson institute, Sep 12, 2016)
9. “Soviet document suggests Mahmoud Abbas was a KGB spy in the 1980s” (By Peter Baker, NY Times, Sep 8, 2016)
“HOLIDAYS FROM HISTORY”
[Notes by Tom Gross]
This is a follow-up to other recent dispatches on the increasing Russian involvement in the Middle East, as the U.S. withdraws its leadership from the region.
I attach two pieces published yesterday by Tass, the official news agency of the Russian Federation. (Both these articles reflect the Kremlin’s political viewpoints.)
The fourth piece (“Russia Re-Emerges as a Great Power in the Middle East”) is more interesting. It is by Walter Russell Mead, who in my view is one of the sharpest American academics writing about foreign policy today.
He writes: “Putin may not have an economy, and his power projection capability may be held together with chicken wire and spit, but the delusions of his opponents have always been his chief tools. European and American leadership since the end of the Cold War has been operating on the false belief that geopolitics had come to an end; they have doubled down on that delusion as geopolitics came roaring back in the Obama years. In the past, Europe was able to take ‘holidays from history’ because the United States was keeping an eye on the big picture. But that hasn’t been true in the Obama administration, and the juddering shocks of a destabilizing world order are the consequence of a foreign policy that isn’t grounded in the hard facts of power.”
PRESIDENT ABBAS, EX-KGB AGENT, WHOSE HANDLER IS NOW PUTIN’S MIDEAST ENVOY
Last week it was revealed that current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas worked for the KGB as an agent in Moscow and Damascus in the 1980s and that his then KGB handler was none other than Mikhail Bogdanov, who is now Vladimir Putin’s deputy foreign minister and who has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days at a time when Russia is intervening to broker talks between Israel and the Palestinians. (Putin, of course, also worked in a senior position in the KGB.)
The information on Abbas comes from Vasili Mitrokhin, a senior archivist for the KGB who later defected to the West, and smuggled a large cache of documents from Russia to London. The Mitrokhin Archive was opened to public researchers a few weeks ago.
Bogdanov was stationed in Damascus for much of the 1980s. His official Russian Foreign Ministry biography says he served as a diplomat in Syria from 1983-89 and again from 1991-94.
ABBAS’S EXTENSIVE OPERATIONAL ACTIVITIES FOR THE KGB
Tom Gross adds:
I am told by highly knowledgeable sources that the document in the London archives is accurate but in fact underplays Abbas’s role.
I am told that Abbas had many years of active involvement on behalf of the KGB and Soviet satellite services. Abbas was not just on the periphery as an informer, a collaborator or sympathizer. He was directed, trained and given orders across a large number of areas in these years.
Abbas (and others in the PLO) were actively controlled and used in operational activities by the Soviet Union to benefit and achieve the goals of the Soviet Union and of the Hafez Assad regime. Some of these activities, I am told, were conducted against the interests of Saudi Arabia as well as against other states and against Jews in a number of countries.
PLO operations, arms inquisitions, and training for terror attacks and airline hijackings were carried out through Soviet satellite services, in particular the Bulgarians, Romanians and East Germans, and to a lesser extent the Poles and Czechoslovaks.
Of course the Soviet leadership was very anti-Semitic at that time, which probably led Abbas to feel comfortable assisting them.
For more on Abbas in general, here is an opinion article I wrote for the Wall Street Journal after he succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader.
And here is a dispatch on his long history of Holocaust denial.
A ROLE FOR LUXEMBOURG?
The first Tass piece below reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that the Israeli-Palestinian summit could take place in Luxembourg rather than in Moscow.
This comes after the visit of Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel to Jerusalem on Monday for meetings with Netanyahu.
During his visit, Bettel also issued a formal “apology to the Jewish people” on behalf of Luxembourg for its extensive collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“For me it was important to make that step because it’s never too late to recognize errors but the biggest error is not to recognize errors. So I’m happy that we did it,” Bettel told the press after he made the apology on Monday.
He added: “We are friends, Luxembourg and Israel, and our bilateral relations are excellent on the political level but also on the business level and I have a big economic delegation with me here.
“We are both innovative economies, based on innovative economies. Luxembourg and Israel trade has nearly doubled between 2014 to 2015. There is still a large potential but I’m also happy that we opened, in 2010, a Trade and Investment Office here in Israel.
“After this meeting I will go now to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to sign an agreement between universities to strengthen cooperation on the academic and student levels.”
-- Tom Gross
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“PALESTINE INSISTS THAT THE MEETING IS HELD IN MOSCOW AND NOT AT SOME OTHER PLACE”
Palestine expects meeting with Israel in Moscow later this year – ambassador
Tass (News Agency of the Russian Federation)
September 13, 2016
MOSCOW, September 13. /TASS/. Palestine expects that a meeting with the Israeli leadership will be held in Moscow before the end of the year, Palestine’s Ambassador to Russia Abdel Hafez Nofal told TASS.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday that the Israeli-Palestinian summit could take place in Moscow or Luxembourg as the country’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had invited his Israeli counterpart to visit Luxembourg.
“Palestine insists that the meeting is held in Moscow and not at some other place. We hope the meeting takes place in Russia’s capital before the end of the year. Any time, when Russia considers it possible, we are ready to meet the Israeli leadership”, the ambassador said.
In his view, Russia “is now determining a different date for the meeting”.
“We don’t know when and how it is going to happen”, Nofal said.
Palestine hopes Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will pay a visit to that state in November, Nofal added.
“Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will visit Palestine and Israel after November 11,” he said. “The Palestinian leadership is at the final stage of preparations for this important visit,” he said.
(The rest of this piece is here: http://tass.com/world/899599 )
“RECOGNIZED BY EVERYONE AS ENEMIES OF MANKIND”
Lavrov warns against provocations in Golan Heights
Tass (News Agency of the Russian Federation)
September 13, 2016
MOSCOW, September 13. /TASS/. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called to show restraint and to avoid any provocations on the territory of the Golan Heights.
“There is the need to show restraint and not to allow any provocations in the Golan Heights,” Lavrov said commenting on an airstrike carried out by the Israeli jets in Syria’s Golan Heights on Tuesday.
Tel Aviv said this came in response to a projectile from Syria that hit the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights. A similar incident occurred on July 25 and the Israeli Air Force also responded by fire.
The situation in the Golan Heights reflects the overall destabilization of the Middle East and the growing terrorist threat that needs to be countered, Russia’s top diplomat said.
“There are terrorists in the Golan Heights who have been recognized by everyone as enemies of mankind. But the fight against them should be conducted in the framework of the UN Security Council’s resolutions,” Lavrov stressed. “We proceeded from this in our contacts with the Israeli and Syrian colleagues and other countries of this region,” he added.
The Golan Heights, belonging to Syria from 1944, were seized by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War. In 1981, the Knesset passed The Golan Heights Law, unilaterally proclaiming sovereignty of the Jewish state over this territory. The annexation was recognized as illegal by the UN Security Council Resolution in December 1981.
ASSAD’S ATTACK ON ISRAEL INTENDED TO DEFEND HIS HONOR, NOT COUNTRY
Assad’s attack on Israel intended to defend his honor, not country
The Syrian firing of missiles at Israeli jets doesn’t necessarily point to a critical situation on the border. If the shooting continues, however, Israel will be obliged to eliminate the danger – and the road to a direct clash won't be that long.
By Amos Harel
Sep. 14, 2016
Paradoxically, it was the border with Israel – the quietest and most marginal in the Syrian conflict – which supplied the first significant violation of the cease-fire that took effect on Monday night. Israel’s almost routine response to Syrian violations, which have become frequent recently, prompted a highly unusual response from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime: The firing of missiles at Israel Air Force planes.
The Syrian surface-to-air missiles missed their targets and apparently didn’t seriously endanger them. That didn’t stop the Syrian media from declaring that one Israeli plane and one Israeli drone had been downed – a blatant lie that was received skeptically, even in the Arab world.
Nevertheless, the Netanyahu government must now reconsider its policies. Has an overly predictable pattern of behavior not been created, which will ultimately expose Israel to risk? And what message is the Syrian dictator trying to send, on the very day that Russia managed to arrange a cease-fire that is likely to ensure his continuance in power?
Israel doesn’t intervene in the fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Last week, rebel groups began an offensive aimed at distancing Assad’s forces and affiliated militias, including Hezbollah, from Quneitra and positions near the Druze town of Khader, both areas near the Israeli border (regime forces are no longer present on the border itself.)
Assad’s forces responded with artillery shells and mortar fire – imprecise weapons that ended up landing in Israel, time after time, landing near the town of Majdal Shams. With a rebel command post located very close to the Israeli border, the margin of error is small; thus it’s no surprise that regime fire sometimes strays into Israeli territory.
The army responded to several such incidents over the past week with airstrikes on Syrian positions. The last of these prompted the Syrians to respond with anti-aircraft missiles.
It was a dangerous provocation by the regime, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the situation on the border has grown critical or that Assad has any interest in clashing with Israel. It’s more likely that this was muscle-flexing for public relations purposes, and that the false claim of having downed Israeli aircraft was meant to defend Assad’s honor against what he views as Israeli humiliations.
As noted, the Golan is a secondary front in Syria’s civil war. For some time now, the rebels have been trying to link up their forces in the south and central Golan with their enclave near Beit Jinn, east of Mount Hermon, which would threaten the Quneitra-Damascus road. The regime wants to keep this corridor open, and also wants to prevent the rebels from advancing toward the southern corner of the Syrian-Lebanese border, which could allow them to threaten Hezbollah on its home ground.
The continued fire on the Golan could simply indicate that both sides need time to adjust to the cease-fire after such a long period of fighting.
The few details published about the Russian-American deal that led to the cease-fire indicate that the powers will test the truce for a few days – and if it works, they will probably launch a coordinated assault against the most radical rebel organizations, Nusra Front and Islamic State. This gives the extremist groups every reason in the world to keep fighting, and to try to draw other factions in as well, so that they aren’t left alone in the sights of the superpowers.
The past week’s almost automatic response pattern entails risks that could lead to escalation. If, for instance, missiles are fired again at Israeli jets, Israel will have to eliminate this threat to its planes. From there, the road to a direct clash with Assad’s forces isn’t that long.
RUSSIA RE-EMERGES AS A GREAT POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Russia Re-Emerges as a Great Power in the Middle East
By Walter Russell Mead
September 12, 2016
History has few examples of a weak power like Russia making so many gains against so powerful a country as the United States.
For the leader of an ex-global power whose economy is in disarray, Vladimir Putin is having a pretty good 2016. His ships sail the South China Sea, supporting China’s defiance of international law. The Japanese Prime Minister brushes Washington’s protests aside to meet with him. Putin’s Russia digs itself more thoroughly into Crimea each week, a Permanent Member of the Security Council in open and glaring violation of the UN Charter and its own pledged word. He’s watching the European Union grow weaker and less cohesive each day. And in Syria he forced the Obama administration to grovel for a ceasefire deal that leaves him, Putin, more in control than ever, and tacitly accepts his long term presence as a major player in the Middle East. Watching the State Department pursue its Syria negotiation with Russia was surreal: as if Robert E. Lee had to chase Ulysses Grant around Northern Virginia, waving a surrender document in his hands and begging Grant to sign it.
Putin may not have an economy, and his power projection capability may be held together with chicken wire and spit, but the delusions of his opponents have always been his chief tools. European and American leadership since the end of the Cold War has been operating on the false belief that geopolitics had come to an end; they have doubled down on that delusion as geopolitics came roaring back in the Obama years. In the past, Europe was able to take “holidays from history” because the United States was keeping an eye on the big picture. But that hasn’t been true in the Obama administration, and the juddering shocks of a destabilizing world order are the consequence of a foreign policy that isn’t grounded in the hard facts of power.
Take the recently concluded Syria negotiations. As thousands died, and millions fled, as hatreds festered, jihadi groups metastasized and populations radicalized, the United States and Russia edged toward an agreement that would lead to a cease fire. After fevered speculation that the long sought agreement would be signed at the G-20 meeting in China ended in disappointment, John Kerry flew to Geneva and came back with… something.
Ironically, what the Obama-Putin deal is closest to is Donald Trump’s plan for the Middle East. The United States is putting aside its worries about Russian complicity in Syrian war crimes, ignoring the destabilizing potential of an ascendant Iran and its impact on the Sunni world and acquiescing in Russia’s return to the Middle East in order to cooperate with Russia (and Assad and Iran) against Sunni jihadi groups. Secretary Kerry, after much hard work, has gotten Putin to accept an temporary alliance with the United States on Russia’s terms. Assad is already stronger as a result of this agreement; America’s alliance network in the Middle East is already weaker. It’s likely that Putin will push the envelope of the agreement to inflict further humiliations on the Obama administration and inflict further damage on America’s international position. One hopes that at least the people of Aleppo will gain some kind of reprieve from all this, but unless the next administration changes course, the restoration of an Assad-run Syria is looking more likely than before Kerry flew to Geneva.
President Obama came into office with a set of ideas that dominate the thinking of liberal Democrats today. On the one hand, he was a Wilsonian, believing that the spread of democracy, the promotion of multilateral institutions, and a serious commitment to human rights and the rule of law are the only means to advance U.S. interests and prevent destructive new wars. And he has some of the most ambitious, world-order-building goals that any President has ever sought: the end of global warming, the end of nuclear weapons, winning over adversaries like Russia, China, Iran and “moderate Islamists” to the U.S.-world-order agenda. And he wants war criminals like Assad removed from office and tried in the Hague. Yet he was also a non-interventionist, someone who believed that American interventions abroad – in Vietnam, in Laos (as he reminded us last week), in Iraq and elsewhere – were bad for the United States and worse for the world. More, he believes that America can best lead the world by “nation-building at home”: rather than spending money on military build ups and foreign wars, we should spend more money dealing with injustice and poverty in our own country.
Over the course of his first term, Obama gradually shifted toward the non-interventionist position. A series of disasters in the Middle East – the chaotic aftermath of the war in Libya, the debacle that followed the removal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the generally disappointing results of the Arab Spring – seem to have convinced the President that his “humanitarian hawk” advisors couldn’t be trusted with the keys to the car. But this didn’t kill his humanitarian and idealistic impulses, nor did it diminish the strength in the Democratic Party of those who believe that the promotion of democracy, morality and the rule of law should be the foundation of American foreign policy.
As Syria imploded and the worst humanitarian disaster since World War Two gradually took form in the heart of the Middle East, President Obama and his team faced nothing but bad choices. Intervention became increasingly chancy and risky as all sides in the war turned uglier; on the other hand, abstention meant that Iran, Russia and the Sunni world would turn Syria into a free fire zone. The rise of ISIS (and the impact of its atrocities on American public opinion) forced the Administration to assemble the elements of an anti-ISIS coalition, and ultimately to put a limited American military presence into the war. Nobody was happy with the resulting policy or the situation in Syria, and it kept getting worse. The Assad government, supported by Russia and Iran, intensified a murderous campaign that targeted civilians. Heartrending stories filled the press; the throng of refugees threatened the stability of countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and created a major political crisis inside the European Union. The Saudis and their allies were furious at American lack of cooperation against what they saw as a Shi’a sectarian war of aggression; the Turks were furious both at the ongoing conflict and at the U.S. policy of supporting the Syrian Kurds as an anti-ISIS ally. Besides the countless atrocities and horrors the war inflicted on Syrians, the conflict and the American reaction to it were stressing key American alliances and allies from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Germany and Greece.
From the Oval Office point of view, bad as the results of the current policy were, there were no better alternatives. But the pressure to “do something” was continuous. Both within and beyond the administration, the criticism was devastating, and the consciences of many administration officials were increasingly burdened by the lack of American response. Given the immovable object of the President’s refusal to escalate, and the irresistible force of criticism, the administration sought to ease the pressure through two approaches. First, it would try to buy off humanitarian critics by making statements of disapproval about the Assad government’s tactics. Second, it would seek to work with Russia for a cease fire that would stop, or at least significantly slow, the bloodshed, while creating a framework for a political negotiation leading to a stable Syria in the future.
This plan represents the sweet spot in the internal politics of the administration. It balances the Oval Office’s determination to avoid a military clash in the final months of the President’s term with the humanitarian instincts that are still strong at Foggy Bottom, in Congress and among many administration officials. Cynics would say it is a way to look like you are doing something without doing anything much; the President’s supporters would say it’s a balanced and nuanced response that offers the best hope of progress for the kind of solution Syria needs without giving up on America’s (verbal) support of its ideals.
But there was one player that the White House doesn’t seem to have fully taken into account: Vladimir Putin. It’s doubtful that at this point President Obama retains many of the optimistic illusions that marked the early stages of his Russia policy: the naive hopes that Medvedev might offer a serious alternative to Putin, the belief that Putin was angry only because of errors on our part, the belief that he is a geopolitical bumbler whose serial errors would soon trip him up. Those mists and fogs have (finally, after many lost months and years) burned away, but the White House may not yet understand the degree to which humiliating President Obama and making him look weak has become a principal driver of Russian policy.
To hear the Obama Administration explain it, Russia and the United States have common interests in Syria, difficult though it may be to reach an agreement based on them. We both want a stable Syria. Neither one of us wants the jihadi radicals to end up in charge of the country. We both want religious and ethnic minorities protected. We both want the killing to stop.
And there’s more. Russia has, the White House believes, more reasons for ending the conflict. Militarily, it’s a war neither Russia nor Assad can win. The only option is to keep throwing good money after bad, to prop up an Assad government that cannot restore security in the country. Worse, as Assad’s forces weaken, Russia will have to throw more of its combat strength into the mix, leading to more casualties and unrest at home. Some of that unrest will be among the Russian Muslim population, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and who are not pleased at Russian participation in a sectarian war on the Shi’a side. Supporting Assad and Iran also weakens Russia’s hopes for outreach to the Sunni Arabs, whose help Russia will need to jack the oil price back up. Given all that, negotiating with Russia over Syria looks like a smart play, and this is where, over and over, the Obama Administration comes out when it debates Syria policy.
All of this explains why Charlie Brown thinks Lucy will help him kick the football, but fails to explain why Lucy likes to pull it away.
The truth seems to be a simple one: Lucy likes watching Charlie Brown humiliate himself by falling flat on his back more than she enjoys watching the football fly down the field. That is, the Obama Administration’s Syria calculus has underestimated how great Putin’s interest is in making the United States look and sound weak and unsuccessful. He doesn’t just enjoy it when John Kerry slips and falls on a banana peel that Lavrov has artfully positioned behind him; Putin is willing to run risks and even to take on significant costs simply in order to make the United States look bad.
Beating Barack Obama like a brass drum doesn’t just help Putin at home. It helps him re-establish Russia’s prestige in the Middle East. It shakes the confidence of our NATO allies. It unnerves Japan and Taiwan. It endears Putin to Beijing. Because the United States is the global superpower, emerging as the power that has the capacity to make President Obama look like a loser is a huge gain for Russia. It strengthens the narrative being propounded by the Kremlin disinformation machine; it strengthens anti-Americanism everywhere. It helps drive a wedge between the U.S. and our allies in Europe. It helps persuade rulers all over the world that the U.S. is a weak and ineffective power, encouraging them to look to rising powers like China, Iran and, of course, Russia as better partners for the future. It undermines the liberal order that the United States and its allies have been working on since World War Two, and hastens the day when it will be replaced by something less liberal and less orderly.
This means, among other things, that the more urgently the United States wants to negotiate for something like a cease fire in Syria, the more the Russians enjoy withholding it for weeks and months and even years. Our very eagerness to negotiate incentivizes the Kremlin to tease, to stall, to hold the glittering prize just beyond reach, making us beg for it. Dance, Kerry, dance!
After milking the situation for all it is worth, and negotiating the over-eager Americans into a set of damaging concessions, the Russians gave the Obama Administration the deal it so obviously and desperately wants. But will they keep it? Having tortured, teased and humiliated the Americans for months over the framing of the deal, will they now shift to a strategy of torturing, teasing and humiliating the Americans over its implementation?
The answer is that they probably will. What both Obama and the Russians know is that Obama doesn’t have an alternative. If the Russians break the deal, will Obama unleash massive American support for an anti-Assad offensive? No. Will the White House assemble a coalition of regional allies to bring the war criminals to justice? Nyet. Will the U.S. force Russia to pay some dire price on some other issue in world politics? Almost certainly not.
Kicking sand in this administration’s face is a one way bet for the Russians. The Americans will sulk and pout and make inspiring speeches about the arc of history, but the weaker they look the less anyone cares about all that. There are no consequences to embarrassing Obama, hanging Kerry out to dry, or to walking away from a deal the Americans spent months begging you to accept. Under this President, they will just come back for another round of negotiations from a weaker bargaining position.
For President Obama, this is leadership. It is embracing negotiation. It is looking beyond the atmospherics, reaching out to one’s opponents, finding common interests. It is overcoming the inherited taboos of the Cold War era, transcending the shibboleths of geopolitical competition, dispensing with the superstitious faith that ‘credibility matters’, laying the foundations of a true, and truly liberal, international order. The President does not see that occupied Crimea, embattled Ukraine, slaughtered Syria represent the negation of everything he hopes to build. He doesn’t understand that from Pyongyang to Caracas hard men with cold eyes and dead hearts are weighing his words and placing their bets. He doesn’t see the connection between his concessions to Putin and the crisis of his China policy. He doesn’t really understand why, despite his best efforts, the world is less peaceful now than it was when George Bush left office.
For Obama, closing down some of Guantanamo, signing an unenforceable climate agreement in Paris, flirting with the notion of a ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine, apologizing to Laos and exchanging ambassadors with the Castro brothers are what history is made of.
Putin disagrees, but hopes Obama goes on thinking as he does.
We live in interesting times.
SOVIET DOCUMENT SUGGESTS MAHMOUD ABBAS WAS A K.G.B. SPY IN THE 1980s
Soviet Document Suggests Mahmoud Abbas Was a K.G.B. Spy in the 1980s
By Peter Baker
The New York Times
September 8, 2016
JERUSALEM – Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may have more in common than an interest in Middle East peace talks. According to a newly discovered Soviet document, Mr. Abbas may have once worked for the K.G.B., too.
The possibility, trumpeted by the Israeli media on Wednesday night and just as quickly dismissed by Palestinian officials, emerged from a document in a British archive listing Soviet agents from 1983. A reference to Mr. Abbas is tantalizing but cryptic, just two lines identifying him by the code name “Mole.” At the end of his entry are two words: “K.G.B. agent.”
The suggestion that Mr. Abbas may have been on Moscow’s roster more than three decades ago might have been just a historical curiosity but for the fact that it comes at the same time that Mr. Putin has been trying to organize new talks between Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. A Russian envoy was in Jerusalem this week to meet with Mr. Netanyahu, but the Israeli and Palestinian leaders remain at odds and no direct talks appear imminent.
“We thought it was important now in the context of the Russian attempt to arrange a summit between Abbas and Netanyahu, particularly because of Abbas’s joint K.G.B. past with Putin,” said Gideon Remez, one of two researchers at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who found and disclosed the Soviet document to Israel’s Channel 1. (At the end of the Soviet era, Mr. Putin was a K.G.B. lieutenant colonel.)
Mr. Remez’ research partner, Isabella Ginor, said Mr. Abbas’s past was relevant because of Russia’s possible continuing influence on him. “We don’t know what happened later on and if Abu Mazen went on with his service or work for the Soviets,” she said, using another name for Mr. Abbas. “But now that he is head of the Palestinian Authority, this can be a lever on him.”
Palestinian officials scoffed at the report of Mr. Abbas’s possible ties to the Soviet spy agency, calling it a brazen effort to undermine him at a time when he is struggling with dissent at home and seeking support abroad. Gal Berger of Israel Radio said Palestinian officials laughed at the report.
“There’s a clear trend of attempting to damage Abu Mazen by various elements, including Israel,” Mohammed al-Madani, a central committee member of Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “This is another attempt to slander him.”
Indeed, Palestinian officials argued that there would have been no need for Mr. Abbas to be a Soviet agent because the Palestine Liberation Organization at the time was openly working with Moscow. Mr. Abbas, they said, led a Palestinian-Soviet friendship foundation, making him the de facto liaison to Moscow.
The document naming Mr. Abbas was among thousands of pages of files spirited out of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and turned over to British intelligence by a former K.G.B. archivist, Vasily Mitrokhin. Disillusioned by Soviet repression, Mr. Mitrokhin spent years painstakingly copying secret documents by hand, creating a treasure trove for Western analysts and historians that became known as the Mitrokhin archive.
The documents, the subject of at least two books, are now stored at the Churchill Archives Center at the University of Cambridge and were opened to the public two years ago. Mr. Remez and Ms. Ginor said they came across the paper naming Mr. Abbas while researching Soviet involvement in the Middle East.
Under a title listing K.G.B. workers in 1983, the document names “Abbas, Mahmoud,” born 1935 in Palestine, as an agent in Damascus. It calls him “Krotov,” a variant of the word mole. Mr. Abbas was indeed born in 1935 in what was then known as Palestine, but after the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948, his family fled to Damascus, Syria, where he was raised and educated.
Yet the document is as notable for what it does not say. It says nothing, for instance, about how or when Mr. Abbas was recruited, what he did for the K.G.B., whether he was paid or how long he remained an agent.
But Mr. Remez and Ms. Ginor noted that Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister who has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days, was stationed in Damascus around that time. Mr. Bogdanov’s official Foreign Ministry biography says he served in Damascus from 1983-89 and again from 1991-94.
“We can’t say he was directly connected with Abbas at the time but we assume at least over time he learned about it because he is a Middle East expert,” Mr. Remez said.
Mr. Remez said that they were not trying to undercut Mr. Abbas and, in fact, they favor talks with the Palestinians – but not under the auspices of the Russians, who should not be trusted. “It is not basically a good idea,” he said. “So that is why we thought this is the time to go public with this discovery.”