The visit of a HAMAS to Moscow

Activization of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East diminished the possibility of Palestinians’ radicalization and put off the prospect of a major conflict in the region.

The visit of a HAMAS delegation to Moscow may benefit both the Kremlin and the movement itself. Reduced to playing a secondary role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until now, Moscow solidified its positions in the Middle East. The latest developments made Moscow an “exclusive” negotiator with an official channel to the movement that runs the Palestinian Autonomy nowadays. In fact, its position in the matter nowadays somewhat resembles the part Moscow is playing in the matter of the Iranian nuclear program. No dramatic breakthrough was accomplished at the talks with HAMAS, but nobody had really expected it. That is why the talks actually had the status of consultations on the level of the Foreign Ministry and included some meetings (prestigious but not really binding anyone to anything) with mufties, Patriarch Aleksii II, and Society of African-Asian Solidarity.

As for HAMAS itself, importance of the visit for it could not be underestimated. It set a precedent of contacts with the international community (until now, HAMAS only communicated with Iran and Turkey beyond the Arab world). It became a demonstration of Palestinian radicals’ wish to communicate with the world, of their readiness for compromises.

What changed

The first international reaction to the news that President Vladimir Putin had invited HAMAS leaders to Moscow was thoroughly negative. The West and Israel accused Russia of disrupting the efforts of the Middle East Quartet (the UN, US, EU, and Russia) to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. France alone hailed Putin’s initiative. In the meantime, the critics changed their tone when the visit was finally over. CE General Secretary Terry Davies said, “The talks do not cost us anything. We cannot expect any accomplishments through screaming at others.” Davies did not even rule out the possibility of extending an invitation to HAMAS to visit Strasbourg one day.

Even Washington seemed satisfied with the Russian-Palestinian negotiations. Adam Ereli of the US Department of State said, “The meetings in Moscow sent a message to the Islamic organization on the necessity to abandon terror, recognize Israel, and acknowledge the commitments of the Palestinian national administration.” The situation in the Middle East – and the understanding that it was unlikely to become any more stable in the foreseeable future, made the West reconcile itself to the Kremlin’s initiative. Something has to be done and if Russia can help with this whole mess, why not let it even if someone may feel slighted by all the attention focused on Russia due to activization of its foreign policy.

Israel became the only country to persist in denouncement of the Palestinians’ visit to Moscow. Acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said that recognition of HAMAS was out of the question. Hardly surprising, bearing in mind how many terrorist acts this organization arranged in Israel.

What Russia is after

HAMAS’ triumph in the election set up a stalemate. Neither the United States, nor the European Union and least of all Israel had so much as envisaged negotiations with an organization involved in terrorist acts. On the other hand, political blockade and financial isolation of the Palestinian Autonomy initially suggested by the United States and seconded by other countries could worsen the situation in Palestine and inflame its population. It would have embittered all of the Islamic world, taken as more evidence of the anti-Moslem policy of the Western community. Moreover, international sanctions against the Palestinian Autonomy would have initiated even closer contacts between HAMAS and Iranian radicals and aggravated the situation in the region.

“The HAMAS episode should be viewed in the Iranian context. Russia enjoys a unique position nowadays – it stands between Islamic radicals and the rest of the world. Its partial success in the dialogue with HAMAS may indirectly help with the Iranian conflict settlement as well. Concessions on Tehran’s part may have a positive effect on HAMAS’ positions,” Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center said.

It is of paramount importance to understand that the countries involved in the Middle East process would have made contact with HAMAS sooner or later in any case. It would have made Russia’s part secondary, at best, again. Waiting for Washington to come to grips with the new reality is a waste of time. Making contact with HAMAS before all others, Moscow secured the status of an expert for itself. From now on, Russian diplomacy and nobody elses will be playing the part of the only source of knowledge on the moods and trends in the Palestinian administration for its Western partners. No wonder a telephone conversation between Putin and US President George W. Bush took place as soon as the HAMAS delegation departed Moscow. On the one hand, this move boosted Russia’s image in the eyes of the Arab and Moslem world. On the other, it diminished the possibility of a major confrontation between the West and Islam.

In the meantime, what Russia gained in the relations with the Palestinians and Moslems in general, it certainly lost in the relations with Israel. Moreover, the HAMAS episode had a somewhat negative effect on the Kremlin’s image in the eyes of the international community. Moscow could and did justly condemn the West for the policy of double standards and for dividing terrorists into “good” and “bad”. As of now, using this particular argument in dialogue with the West will be much more difficult for the Kremlin.

In general, it is impossible at this point to say with any degree of confidence that the visit of the HAMAS delegation will benefit Russia. The negotiations have barely begun, and a lot will depend on how they proceed. “Should HAMAS treat this visit as its own victory and resume terrorist acts again, Russia won’t end up with anything to show for its efforts. On the contrary, it will only worsen its own positions,” Malashenko said.

What the Palestinians gained

The visit to Moscow was very handy for the Palestinians. That much is undeniable. First, this was the first opportunity for HAMAS to inform the international community of its point of view. Second, the visit enabled it to demonstrate readiness to continue negotiations. The people who came into the corridors of power the hard way do not want to find themselves out again. Running around with green flags is one thing, occupying a major official position another. It will only benefit HAMAS to undergo a transformation into something more respectable.

In the meantime, Russian analysts believe that extremists remain extremists everywhere, be it in the corridors of power or elsewhere. Nobody can guarantee that HAMAS is not going to continue its strategy aimed at destruction of Israel. The movement itself is split now, a fact its representatives are frantically trying to conceal from the international community. The radical wing objects to all and any contacts with the world, while the moderate faction stands for the dialogue. “The Palestinian Autonomy may find itself split into three factions now. One part of HAMAS will continue the dialogue with the world, the other will object to it. And FATH will go on mounting tension. After all, we cannot afford to dismiss the fact that when the Palestinians voted HAMAS, they were actually voting against FATH,” Malashenko said. One thing is hopeful. More than 80% of the Palestinians want the dialogue with the international community to continue – thanks to a considerable extent to the Russian initiative.