What was Hamas leader doing in Moscow?

Ismail Haniyeh eyes Russia as a “brotherly nation” and expects Moscow to help reconcile the Palestinians.

al-monitor Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh arrives to hold a press conference in Moscow, March 4, 2020.  Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Mar 6, 2020

Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh's recent visit to Moscow, which had been planned for over a year, was largely ignored by Russian media after being overshadowed by the escalation in Syria's Idlib. Russian foreign policy headquarters, however, paid close attention to it.

Haniyeh began his visit with meetings at the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he was hosted by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“The officials held in-depth discussions on measures to restore Palestinian national unity on the political platform of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as well as on various aspects of developments in Gaza, including in the context of efforts taken toward a lasting and comprehensive settlement in the Middle East based on international law,” the ministry’s readout of the meeting said. The document also mentions that Russian President Vladimir Putin's special presidential representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, carried out additional “expansive consultations” with Haniyeh.

The Foreign Ministry’s comment shows that Moscow prioritizes the issue of Palestinian unity over Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation. However, Russian diplomats have always emphasized that peace between these countries would not be possible until the Palestinians reach a consensus among themselves. That is why a year ago Moscow hosted a summit of Palestinian political movements, though the event ended without even a signed joint statement.

Haniyeh said that during negotiations at the Foreign Ministry, he brought up the possibility of continuing such summits of “first-line” factions to be held in Cairo, Moscow or in any other “friendly, brotherly nation.”

However, the Hamas leader deliberately ignored the question that Al-Monitor asked him during the concluding conference in the Russia Today press center on what kind of guarantees may ensure that future such meetings will not fail like the previous one in Moscow.

For his part, Haniyeh only pointed out that Palestinians need to “discuss their issues profoundly and make substantial decisions,” adding that “every day without unity only exacerbates the situation.”

The politician also avoided stating directly whether he expects a meeting with Paalestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the suggested negotiations in Egypt or Russia.

“As for the meeting with Abu Mazen [Abbas], I do not have any preferences about a particular date or specific conditions. However, I appreciate holding such a meeting at any given time, whether in Gaza, Cairo or Moscow,” he said.

In general, according to Haniyeh, inter-Palestinian reconciliation requires implementing existing agreements rather than signing new ones. He drew out four ways to achieve this goal: universal presidential and parliamentary elections, convening the Palestinian National Council and including all factions, holding a conference of political movement leaders and forming a government of national accord.

Between the negotiations in the ministry and the press conference, the leader of Hamas also managed to meet Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky, and Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs Konstantin Kosachev. Slutsky told the journalists that the Russian government is ready to support the Palestinian-Israeli peace process on the parliamentary level. Moreover, he pointed out that the reconciliation plan proposed by the United States in late January — the so-called deal of the century — “is blatantly pro-Israeli and fails to take the interests of the Palestinian side into consideration.”

Kosachev’s opinion was similar. He noted that Russians “thoroughly examined the lengthy document” on the peace process created by the United States.

“We regret to conclude that the authors are clearly biased in favor of one of the sides of the conflict, specifically Israel. At the same time, the Palestinian side’s legitimate interests are basically ignored in this deal,” he pointed out.

This American project tosses out the results of years of diplomatic and political work, attempting to solve the long-standing Middle Eastern conflict in one swoop "with cowboy-ish methods Americans tend to prefer,” Kosachev said in a critical manner that is characteristic of statements by Russian politicians and diplomats when it comes to the United States' role in the conflict.

Kosachev also mentioned the issue of Palestinian unity, underlining that “the position of the Palestinian side during negotiations with Israel will be substantially strengthened if it becomes consolidated.” Moreover, he offered assistance in organizing the Palestinian election and said Russia would "certainly insist that the Israeli side not block potential Palestinian voters from casting their ballots in the elections in East Jerusalem.”

“Our contacts with your Israeli neighbors are currently irregular due to constant elections there, much more frequent than in Palestine. Nevertheless, the contacts exist, as well as the opportunities to influence the process with parliamentary diplomacy,” Kosachev stressed.

Aside from these events, Haniyeh visited the Moscow Cathedral Mosque and took part in other meetings not covered by the Russian media. For instance, he met the ambassadors of Palestine and Iran to Russia. The Palestinian representative, Abdel Hafiz Nofal, has close contacts with Abbas. As for the Iranian ambassador, according to Haniyeh, meeting him was homage to tradition.

 “Our relations with Iran are quite solid; our representatives always try to visit this country’s embassy during their trips to Moscow,” he explained.

It is noteworthy that the Hamas leader’s trip to Moscow took place simultaneously with the election campaign in Israel — a symbolic, though likely accidental, coincidence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consistently demonstrates his closeness to Putin. However, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is the issue on which Russia and Israel fail to find compromise. It should be mentioned that when the Israeli prime minister arrived in Moscow shortly after the presentation of the deal of the century in Washington, Putin tried to avoid discussing this question in public.

As Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov pointed out during his speech at the Valdai Discussion Club, the only advantage of the deal is that it managed to return Middle Eastern reconciliation to the center of international attention. Viktorov said that Russia was ready to take measures in this field within the four-sided team of mediators (Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations). However, he added, Moscow would appreciate having other nations, particularly ones belonging to the region, in the process.

The ambassador emphasized that Russia was willing to maintain “absolutely friendly, sincere, outspoken relations” both with Israel and Palestine.

Israel’s charge d'affaires in Russia, Yacov Livne, reacted to the Hamas visit by telling Al-Monitor, “It should be noted that Hamas is a terrorist structure, openly and outwardly calling for the destruction of the State of Israel and refusing to accept any possible plan of political reconciliation. … I do not want to give advice to the Russian government. However, it could be practical to consider and implement this information in a suitable way.” 

His words reflect a situation where Russia is hardly having any influence with Israel in regard to reconciliation with Palestinians while at the same time some Israelis hope Moscow will ultimately acknowledge the advantages of the deal of the century, even if not admitting them publicly. In the meantime, Russia is focusing on Palestinian reconciliation, though this process currently also seems almost hopeless.