JERUSALEM // Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in the West Bank yesterday during the first leg of a regional tour billed by the Kremlin as attempting to restart stalled Middle East peace talks.
The visit, Mr Medvedev's first to the Palestinian territory, also is being seen as a renewed gesture of interest in a region that has seen Russian influence fade since the days of the Soviet Union.
In the Jericho, where residents festooned streets with Palestinian and Russian flags, the Russian leader showed up yesterday with an entourage of dozens of Russian businessmen. He was expected to sign a number of agreements with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.
The last visit by a Russian head of state to the West Bank was in 2005 by Mr Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin, now Russia's prime minister.
At a joint press conference with the Palestinian leader, Mr Medvedev also pledged Palestinians his country's political support.
"We have supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital since the last century, and we still support it," he said.
While considered a boost to their statehood ambitions, including their claims on East Jerusalem as their hoped-for capital, Palestinians had expected him to reaffirm his country's recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
For a month, West Bank officials have been lobbying the Russians for this, hoping Moscow would follow similar moves made by several Latin American nations.
The Soviet Union, as it then was, had recognised Palestinian independence in 1988. Mr Medvedev stressed that Russia still considers this recognition valid. "We made our decision then and we have not changed it today," he said.
He also lent support for Palestinian demands that Israel halt construction on Jewish settlements. In September, Mr Abbas suspended his participation in peace talks after Israel refused to extend a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and, since then, has launched his envoys across the globe to earn diplomatic support.
"We discussed the conditions for resuming talks with Israel, which include continued self-control and strictly abiding by commitments, and before anything else, freezing all Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem," Mr Medvedev said.
Mr Abbas seemed to warn Israel about potential violence if settlement growth was not restrained.
"There are two options: either peace, or terror and violence," he said. "We shall not choose terror and violence."
Some Russian officials sought to play down expectations in the run-up to the visit, cautioning that there would probably be no significant breakthroughs.
"That would be a very high hurdle," said Sergei Prikhodko, a senior adviser to the Russian president. "We do not consider ourselves a messiah," he said, adding: "We are ready to demonstrate a responsible approach and share that responsibility with everyone."
Today, Mr Medvedev is scheduled to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman, where Jordanian officials hope a number of commercial projects will be discussed, including the country's nascent nuclear-energy ambitions.
"We believe there is a huge potential for ties to improve," said Ayman Safadi, Jordan's deputy prime minister, "particularly in the mega projects the country is launching related to energy and water".
Mr Medvedev had planned a stopover in Israel, but decided to cancel that part of the visit out of concern involving an ongoing workers' strike at Israel's foreign ministry.
Next month, officials from Russia and the other members of the Mid East Quartet, which also includes the United States, the European Union and the UN, plan to meet on the sidelines of a conference in Munich to find ways to push the peace process forward.
Arab nations were expected yesterday to put forward a resolution to the UN Security Council condemning Israel's settlements. The vote is not expected to take place for several days, and hinges on whether the Palestinians and their Arab allies can persuade a sceptical United States not to veto the measure.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinians' UN ambassador, told reporters on Monday: "The American position has been all along that they don't want the Security Council to be involved in this issue. We tried, we are trying, we will continue to try to show that it would be very useful for the Security Council to act on this draft resolution," he said.
* With additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh in Amman