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Israel-Hamas war: What is Russia’s role as Mideast mediator? – DW – 02/26/2024

This week, delegates from various Palestinian factions will travel to Moscow for talks on the Israel-Hamas war and other Middle Eastern topics at an “inter-Palestinian dialogue.”

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russian state news agency TASS that between 12 and 14 organizations will attend the conference, which begins on February 29 and will run for two or three days. 

This includes representatives of the political arm of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah, the political organization running the occupied West Bank and the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, the broader umbrella organization for all Palestinian groups.

The various groups take very different positions on topics like the recognition of Israel as a state. The Fatah-led PLO recognized Israel in 1993, partially in exchange for a possible Palestinian state. Hamas has rejected that stance for years, even though recently its rhetoric has softened. It is not part of the PLO.

A Palestinian boy walks through the aftermath of the Israeli military raid on Nur Shams refugee campFatah manages the West Bank, which has also seen clashes between the Israeli military and PalestiniansImage: Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo/picture alliance

There has also been violence between the groups. After Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006, it was unable to come to a power-sharing deal with the more moderate Fatah and fighting broke out. Fatah eventually left the Gaza Strip, leaving Hamas in charge there, and now manages the West Bank. Its governing authority there is also known as the Palestinian Authority, or PA.

‘Dialogue for dialogue’s sake’

This isn’t the first time a more unified Palestinian front has been discussed. As Ruslan Suleymanov, an independent Russian Middle East expert based in Baku, told DW, there has been mediation between the different groups before. “But they have never been effective,” he said.

In this case, “Russia does not have any road map for the Palestinian file, especially for the Gaza Strip as it would be necessary to have mediation functions and maintain good contacts with both Israel and the paramilitary wing of Hamas in Gaza,” said Suleymanov.

Instead, he thinks Moscow’s main goals are to show that it has some influence on Palestinian factions and to use the timing ahead of Russia’s presidential election to show off its geopolitical clout. Russians will go to the polls in mid-March, but there is no doubt that the incumbent, President Vladimir Putin, will win.

“It’s really just dialogue for dialogue’s sake,” Suleymanov added. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, holding his hand to his forehead with his eyes closedPA head and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is increasingly unpopular and is unlikely to win elections, if they were heldImage: Christophe Ena/AP/dpa/picture alliance

This view was echoed by Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“This Russian summit is a way to show that Russia has the diplomatic capacity to play a hands-on role in supporting Palestinian national unity,” he told DW. However, previous reconciliation talks that were hosted in Moscow, Algiers and Cairo have “also not succeeded in brokering a lasting reconciliation deal between the rivals,” he said.

Palestinian fragmentation

“The divergences between the Palestinian groups include far-reaching political differences relating to the peace process and national liberation strategy as well as technical questions in terms of how to bring the Palestinian Authority’s institutions back to Gaza,” said Lovatt.

Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the United States and other governments, has run Gaza since 2007. Any future, postwar scenario that returns the Palestinian Authority to Gaza and integrates Hamas politically in the occupied West Bank would have to be based on some form of understanding between Hamas and the PA, Lovatt told DW.

For Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who handed in his resignation on February 26, this is a possibility. Earlier in February, he told reporters at the Munich Security Conference that Hamas was an integral part of the Palestinian political arena. “They need to come to our political agenda. Our ground is very clear. Two states on the borders of 1967, through peaceful means. The Palestinians need to be under one umbrella,” he said.

There are certainly problems with that idea. A number of countries have said Hamas should not be able to play a role in governance after the conflict ends. Israel, in particular, is opposed to this option. It’s also hard to know how Hamas’ harder attitude toward recognizing Israel would fit in with the PLO, which has already recognized Israel. 

And yet, for Russia, even if the meeting doesn’t go well, the continuing Palestinian divergence would not necessarily be a negative result. The meeting would still help consolidate Russia’s future role in the Middle East.

Russia as Middle East mediator

For many years, Russia managed to keep close ties with Israel despite also maintaining good relations with one of Israel’s regional opponents, Iran. Following Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, relations soured when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t show support for Russia’s invasion and thousands of Russians and Ukrainians fled to Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds flowers next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they meet in MoscowRussian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu were close for many yearsImage: Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS

However, Baku-based analyst Suleymanov believes Russia can’t really “afford to lose Israel either.” The Russian-speaking community has been the largest minority in Israel since close to a million people of Jewish origin migrated to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Ties between Russia and Iran have also grown closer, though. Iran is known to support Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraqi paramilitary groups and the Houthi rebels in Yemen in one way or another. All of these consider the US and Israel as their enemies.

Russia has long maintained ties with Palestinian militants, and its contacts with Hamas have already led to some success. In October, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov, who is also Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East, handed a list of kidnapped Israelis of Russian origin or dual nationality to the political representatives of Hamas in Qatar and asked for their release.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow.Putin has improved ties with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi since Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022Image: Sergei Bobylyov/AFP/Getty Images

Roni Krivoi, a Russian-Israeli sound technician, was released by Hamas on November 26 in addition to 13 Israelis who were freed as part of a temporary cease-fire brokered by Qatar and the United States. As The Washington Post noted at the time, “he became the first adult male with an Israeli passport set free, even as most of the exchanges involved women and children.” 

This article was updated on February 26 to reflect the resignation of Mohammad Shtayyeh as Palestinian prime minister.

DW’s Studio Riga contributed to this article.

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer