Russia has been increasingly intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in the wake of the US-Palestinian estrangement since President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and transferred the US Embassy there in May. Meanwhile, US-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli negotiations remain stalled since 2014.
Most recently, on Nov. 28, Russian Ambassador to Palestine Haidar Rashid met with Hamas’ political bureau head Ismail Haniyeh in his office in the Gaza Strip and invited him to visit Russia soon. Haniyeh praised Russia's efforts on the Palestinian cause and Rashid further stressed efforts to support it.
During the Mediterranean Dialogues in Rome on Nov. 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced his country's willingness to mediate to resolve the Palestinian cause and host a Palestinian-Israeli meeting.
On the same day, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki announced that he would be visiting Moscow in December to discuss bilateral relations and stressed Moscow's role in persuading Hamas leaders to end the division during their next visit.
On Nov. 6, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Ramallah with Russian Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Maxim Topilin and underlined the depth of bilateral historical relations — be it in politics, economy or trade.
Ahmed al-Deek, the political adviser to Malki, told Al-Monitor, “We always coordinate with Russia since there is no hope with the US administration given its biased positions toward Israel and since it is no longer suited to be the exclusive sponsor of the peace process. Moscow is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is worthy of being a sponsor of this process alongside Washington, especially following President Abbas' call in February for an international peace conference.”
Deek added, “In addition we welcome any Russian role — along with all Egyptian efforts — to end the [internal] division once and for all so we can bridge the gap with all Palestinian parties.”
In November, a series of successive Palestinian events were held in Moscow, as if it had become the Palestinians’ favorite international capital. This clearly shows the cooperation between the Palestinians and the Russians, and Moscow's desire to fill the vacuum left by Washington in the region and after losing its direct involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
On Nov. 27, the Russian-Palestinian Joint Higher Political Committee met in Moscow under the chairmanship of Abbas' foreign affairs adviser Nabil Shaath and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss the political dossier, bilateral relations and Russian action in the next stage.
On the same day, Moscow celebrated the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, coinciding with the Palestinian cultural events in Russia. On Nov. 21, the Palestinian ambassador to Russia, Abdul Hafiz Nofal, awarded the Friendship Star order on behalf of Abbas to the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vitaly Naumkin, for his role in strengthening the Palestinian-Russian relations.
Ahmed Youssef, a former political adviser to Haniyeh and the head of Beit al-Hikma, a nongovernmental organization established in the Gaza Strip in 2007 to convey the Palestinian cause to the world through training seminars, workshops and conferences, told Al-Monitor, “One of the reasons Russia is increasing efforts when it comes to Palestinian affairs is to make up for the image it left in the Arab world after intervening in Syria. By getting closer to Hamas, Russia is trying to polish its image, given the magnitude of the Palestinian cause.”
Youssef said, “Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority [PA] is not quite pleased with Russia inviting Hamas for a visit and does not want the movement to expand its ties internationally, in light of the blockade it wants to keep imposing on it. Any and all regional and international ties to Hamas harm the PA and its leadership.”
The PA has not issued a formal position on Russia inviting Hamas.
Youssef’s remarks show that the PA wants to monopolize the Palestinian political scene and be the only party to visit Russia.
The Palestinian leadership visits to Moscow in recent months show a serious Palestinian desire for the Russians to have a role and influence in the conflict with Israel. Meanwhile, Russia is constantly inviting Palestinian leaders to visit it, so it can influence them. However, both parties remain without any guarantees of their aspirations becoming reality.
On Nov. 10, Bogdanov received in Moscow the director of the political department of the PLO, Anwar Abdul Hadi, and discussed the situation in the region.
On Aug. 7, the Islamic Jihad leadership visited Moscow to discuss issues related to the Palestinian cause with Bogdanov. On July 27, Maj. Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the Palestinian intelligence service, arrived in Russia at the invitation of his Russian counterparts to strengthen their coordination and partnership to combat international terrorism.
On July 12, Abbas met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and discussed regional developments. On July 11, leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine arrived in Moscow to discuss Palestinian developments. A Hamas delegation visited Moscow on June 26 to tackle ending the division and achieving reconciliation.
Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian minister of planning in Ramallah and head of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, told Al-Monitor, “Moscow left the Palestinian-Israeli file for Washington to handle in exchange for handling the Syrian file itself.”
Khatib noted, “Russia is not using its policy to intervene internally between Fatah and Hamas and externally with Israel; its interests lie in Syria and the Crimean Peninsula. The PA is uncomfortable with the Russians calling on Hamas leaders to visit because it is interested in reducing the movement’s external relations.”
The Russian role in the Palestinian arena coincides with two important developments: the US talks to postpone the "deal of the century" and the Russian-Israeli tension following the downing of a Russian plane in Syria in September. This raises questions about the impact of Tel Aviv accepting a Russia mediation and making Moscow compete with the United States, which is the main Israeli ally.
Saed al-Sawirki, director of the Gaza-based channel RT Arabic, told Al-Monitor, “The channel's interest in the Palestinians is increasing. We are preparing 31 video reports on the Palestinian cause every month. Whenever a military escalation breaks out, we broadcast it live and we produce three reports a day.”
Sawirki added, “The channel’s management in Moscow tells us that our destination for the Arab world starts from Palestine, and the key to Palestine is the Gaza Strip, but we offer a balanced coverage between Fatah and Hamas, without prejudice to either.”
Russia's policy toward the Palestinians is limited to the diplomacy of reciprocal visits and the complimentary statements, which pleases them, because they need any supportive position in their isolation. However, Moscow is still refraining from translating this diplomacy into a serious policy on the ground that would force Israel to respond to the demands of the Palestinians and end US pressure on them.