The visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Damascus and his meeting there with the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal, has engendered considerable anger in Israel and tension between Jerusalem and Moscow. The meeting with Meshal came as a surprise in Israel, particularly after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Saturday evening telephone call to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, aimed at coordinating their countries' positions in advance of Medvedev's trip.

According to a Foreign Ministry source in Jerusalem, Lavrov attempted to reassure Lieberman and said that no unusual events were expected during the visit. The anger in Israel was mixed with embarrassment in light of Lieberman's efforts, begun more than a year ago, to advance Israel's relationship with Russia. In the past, Lieberman has spoken of the potential for "strategic relations" with Moscow, but it now appears that the Russians have different plans and do not really care about Lieberman's ambitions.

In the past year Israel has been restrained in its public responses to meetings between senior Russian officials and representatives of Hamas. The official reason was that these contacts did not represent a departure from the status quo in recent years, during which Lavrov has met periodically with senior Hamas figures.

The fact that this time it was the president of Russia who was meeting with Meshal rather than the foreign minister rendered Lieberman's odd and uncharacteristic restraint impossible to sustain. After a day of feverish discussions at the Foreign Ministry and a delay in the release of a response, an official statement was eventually issued. It was released not on behalf of Lieberman, however, but rather on behalf of the ministry's spokesman.

The Foreign Ministry did not buy the Russian claim that Medvedev's meeting with Meshal was unscheduled, the result of a personal initiative from Syrian President Bashar Assad. The ministry statement thus included harsh criticism of Russia's conduct vis-a-vis Hamas. It expressed disappointment over the meeting with Meshal and said that Hamas was just like Chechen terrorists and Meshal just like the slain Chechen leader Shamil Basayev. The ministry also rejected Medvedev's call to involve Hamas in the peace process.

"Enlightened countries must not divide terrorists into good ones and bad ones according to their geographic location," the ministry said, adding: "Hamas has murdered thousands of innocent people including many from the former Soviet Union and even Russian citizens. Just as Israel has supported Russia without reservation in its battle against Chechen terrorism, so it expects a similar attitude on the part of Russia in our battle against Hamas."