The political leader of Hamas, Khalid Meshal, has visited Russia and held meetings with senior officials, led by Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. This is the third visit of a senior leader of Hamas since the movement's victory in the 2006 elections and comes sandwiched between the visit to Moscow of Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas and the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The visit itself has to be judged a success for Hamas, even if it does not result in any tangible achievements, and as long as Hamas has not changed its demands or waivered in its political stances. During the visit, Meshal reiterated the movement's refusal to recognize Israel explicitly, while pointing out that Hamas accepts a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967. Moreover, the mere reception of Hamas by a state still classified as a great power and one of the members of the Quartet is a huge achievement. The movement is still under siege and listed by the United States and European Union as a "terrorist organisation". Being welcomed by Russia is, therefore, some balance in the movement's struggle for survival.
Hamas would no doubt have liked to raise the status level of the visit by meeting with President Medvedev. Although they failed with that objective, in meeting with the foreign minister the organisation maintained its previous level of representation, which is not what Israel and the US would have wished for. Hamas is keen to win Russian support for an end to the blockade imposed on Gaza since 2006. Moscow believes that Hamas has made "sufficient progress" to warrant an "easing" of economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Gaza since the movement came to power. The visit came at the invitation of the Russian Foreign Minister, indicating that Russia is keen to maintain links with Hamas.
More than any other country, Russia understands that Hamas is a key player in the Israel-Palestine issue and recognizes that US and Israeli policy has not succeeded in eliminating the movement. On the contrary, Hamas has emerged stronger and received more support from the public. Russia is also aware that many international powers are not fully supportive of US policy toward Hamas, but they cannot take a position that would place them in conflict with Washington. It appears that Moscow is trying to fill this vacuum and encourage such hesitant countries to state their position more clearly. Moreover, being outside the US influence zone, Moscow sees an opportunity to use Hamas in order to counter international attempts to contain Russia. Meshal's visit came two days after the escalation of Moscow 's rhetoric against Iran, as if Russia was telling the world that it does not deviate from the international community's position on this but won't agree to be a stooge of those who seek to control everything in the international arena.
It is clear that Russia wants to make a breakthrough in the current reconciliation process between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It is also possible that Russia wants to extract a concession from Hamas with regard to the demands of the Quartet. Foreign Minister Lavrov said, ahead of the meeting with Meshal, that the main objective of the talks was to build on the mediation by Egypt to achieve Palestinian unity. That is, perhaps, why Moscow postponed Meshal's visit until after the visit of Abbas. Russia has shown no bias for one party at the expense of the other, as the US has. While Washington has been pressing for the obstruction of the reconciliation process (Washington threatens to cut financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if a rapprochement is achieved), so Moscow's bid could be seen as an attempt to break the deadlock enforced by the Americans. This was confirmed by Meshal when he told the press that the US is exerting pressure on the sponsor of reconciliation process, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. According to Meshal, the US believes that the Palestinian split benefits itself and the Israelis. He added that the Americans could not change the Israeli position, so in order to a make progress they shifted their focus to get concessions from the Palestinians.
Russia is planning to convene a peace conference to be attended by the mediators in the Middle East conflict and senior officials from Russia, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations. It should not be ruled out that Russia will want Hamas to take part as well, which would only be conceivable if Hamas changes its position with regards to the Quartet's demands. Meshal confirmed that the proposed conference had been addressed in his meeting with Lavrov but he rejected the idea, perhaps to leave the door open and give Russia the opportunity to ease the pressure on Hamas and get support in the reconciliation process.
In a speech at the League of Arab States in Cairo last year, Russia's President Medvedev was balanced about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the gathering that ending the occupation of Palestinian territories and other Arab territories is the key to the overall normalisation of the Middle East. He said that Russia supports a just and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Russian President also said that his country supports the Arab peace initiative adopted in 2002 at the Arab summit in Beirut. More importantly, he called for building on what has been reached in previous rounds of negotiations and refuses to support the resumption of negotiations from scratch, as demanded by Israel and backed by America. According to Medvedev, the parties need to respect international law and all agreements and understandings. He also repeated Russia's position with respect to Israeli settlements and called for an end to them.
The timing of the visit must have been very important for Hamas in light of a possible resumption of negotiations without any guarantees or reassurances for the Palestinians; Israel can, apparently, continue building settlements and resume the peace process without any commitments. There is also pressure on Hamas to sign the reconciliation documents before the Arab summit in March, without taking into account the movement's reservations about amendments made by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is keen to mobilise international support to block any more attempts to isolate it and force it to make concessions, where the beneficiary would only be Israel. Hamas is hoping to find the support it needs in Russia's recognition through this visit, recognition which is not shared by the other members of the Quartet.
Israel, of course, has concerns about the visit of the political leader of Hamas to Russia and has expressed them. The Israelis asked for clarification from the Russians even before the Hamas delegation arrived in Moscow; they wanted to know what diplomatic level the meetings were to be held at. While Israeli radio quoted the country's Foreign Ministry, which said, "Israel refuses to acknowledge any contacts with Hamas", saying so demonstrates how concerned the Israelis are about the potential failure of the isolation policy imposed on Hamas. The Zionist state does not want Russia to regard Hamas as a trump card in its rivalry with the United States. Israeli will not turn a blind eye to Russian attempts to resolve the conflict, but clearly wishes that Russia had not departed from the US and EU position.
In his speech to the Arab League, Medvedev acknowledged the serious impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the international community. He introduced a vision for a fair settlement, a position which is quite different from that of the US. Medvedev talked about the need for an international front to push for a just agreement. The international community is warming to such an idea. Perhaps Washington will object but it is not in a position to derail it, particularly after the change in US policy by the Obama administration. Russian proposals could win the support of other major powers, notably the European Union, if US dominance was not so limiting in its approach to free and active contributions towards building a united front.
A just settlement is possible if the Arab states also support the Russian proposals. A unified Arab stance on supporting Palestinians' rights, including the right to resist the illegal occupation of their land, is what is needed. Arab diplomats should respond positively to the Russian idea for by doing so they would provide the incentive for the EU, and even China, to contribute to a united front able to put pressure on Israel to abide by international resolutions, agree to withdraw from all occupied territories and allow the return of Palestinian refugees.
It may be useful to invest positive results into the relationship of Hamas with Russia to the extent of widening relationships with European capitals. Post-Goldstone, the time is ripe for such a breakthrough with an increase in pro-justice discussions and support from political leaders across Europe allying themselves to the Palestinians' efforts to have the siege of Gaza lifted.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.