Sunday December 2, 2018
BY CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin addresses servicemen as he visits the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria. (photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/REUTERS)
Moscow hosts Hamas and Fatah members amid ongoing efforts to forge Palestinian unity and ahead of the roll-out of the Trump administration's peace plan
Hamas leader Ismael Haniyyeh was slated to arrive in Russia on Thursday, as the Kremlin seems to be wading into the Palestinian political foray that traditionally has been the diplomatic turf of the United States. This comes after Nabil Sha'ath, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hussein al-Sheikh, a member of the Central Committee of Abbas' ruling Fatah faction who is responsible for overseeing reconciliation talks with rival Hamas, held discussions this week with officials in Moscow.
"There is a Russian effort to work on creating Palestinian unity, especially after the negative news that was published suggesting that a meeting held in Cairo was not fruitful," Sha'ath related to The Media Line from the Russian capital.
"A Hamas delegation led by Haniyyeh will be visiting," he continued, "but Fatah representatives will not meet with them directly and will instead travel to Rome, where President Abbas will be." The Palestinians have been internally divided since Hamas ousted Fatah from the Gaza Strip in a 2007 internecine war, with numerous subsequent reconciliation efforts having failed to bridge the gaps. Russia has in the past hosted several rounds of these talks, and it appears that the groundwork is being laid for another go.
Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly has offered to host a peace summit to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, a subject undoubtedly broached with the PA officials. In fact, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated just last week that Moscow is willing to mediate between the sides, adding that regional stability would remain elusive until the conflict was resolved.
These comments presumably were poorly received in Jerusalem, whose relations with the Kremlin remain strained following September's accidental downing by Syrian forces of a Russian reconnaissance plane, an incident Moscow nevertheless blamed on Israel which minutes earlier had conducted a nearby aerial raid targeting an Iranian weapons depot.
Indeed, Lavrov went so far as to invoke the controversial—if not discredited—"linkage theory" positing that the Israeli-Palestinian is the root source of the Middle East's ills and, by extension, the cause of ongoing turmoil in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and beyond.
"As regards the scope of Russia's general involvement, it is difficult to gauge. If they have long-term aspirations that can contribute to a broader international involvement in reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians then this could bear fruit," Gilead Sher, a Senior Research Fellow and head of the Center of Applied Negotiations at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, contended to The Media Line. "That said, the animosity between Fatah and Hamas is enormous and, overall, the Egyptians seem to be the best positioned to end the rift.
"But the Russians have an agenda in the Middle East," he elaborated, "and there could be a positive element to this given the upcoming release of the Trump peace proposal, as currently there is not much chance for a uniquely American effort to succeed. If the U.S.
president has listened to external voices, then his plan will include gradual, transitional phases—that are nonetheless continuous and binding—and would involve other parties, such as the Sunni states, the EU as well as Russia." Some analysts have proffered that Abbas dispatched his emissaries with a view to solidifying Russian support ahead of the roll-out of President Trump's proposal, which Ramallah already has rejected out-of-hand. The PA imposed a boycott on American officials when the Trump administration in December recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and might now be looking to Russia to help counter the White House initiative.
In fact, the PA increasingly appears marginalized, as evidenced by its lack of participation in recent efforts to forge a long-term cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. Moreover, the U.S.
has suspended direct funding to Abbas’ government; cut-off at least $200 million in aid earmarked for humanitarian projects in the West Bank and Gaza; ended financial support for the United Nations agency tasked with attending to Palestinian refugees; and shuttered the Palestinian mission in Washington.
Moreover, the PA's traditional Sunni allies progressively are building an alliance with the Jewish state primarily based on the shared interest of curbing Shiite Iran's expansionism and potential nuclearization. Notably, Arab media reported Thursday that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting earlier this week agreed to encourage regional countries to forge trade ties with Jerusalem.
This "worrisome process," in Sha'ath's words, comes on the heels of numerous trips by high- ranking Israeli officials to Gulf nations—including one by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Oman—which prompted Ramallah to call for urgent meetings of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in protest of the rapprochement.
"The Palestinians may be turning to Russia but the country is unable to replace the U.S. in the Middle East," former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov affirmed to The Media Line.
"For Moscow, there is a huge bleeding wound in Ukraine, which is the number one problem facing Putin. All other so-called interferences, including in Syria and with the Palestinians, pale in significance. And anyways, the prevailing sentiment is that the conflict is frozen and cannot be solved, so the visits are more symbolic and aimed at projecting an image of Russian power.
"The Israeli-Palestinian stalemate," he concluded, "can only be cracked by the Americans as they alone have the diplomatic clout. This process will go nowhere until Washington steps in and decides enough is enough and changes the situation." It seems, then, that U.S.-Russian geopolitical jockeying over the Palestinian issue is a relic of the Cold War. If so, this could bode poorly for the PA as superficial support from Moscow is unlikely to translate into tangible benefits on the ground that advance its prospects of achieving statehood.
Dima Abumaria contributed to this report.