Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a busy weekend. During a three-day visit to the Middle East, he met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan, spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and tried to heal the rift between the Gulf states and Qatar, forge a unified position on the Syrian crisis and end the Palestinian schism between Fatah and Hamas.
At a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Lavrov revealed that Russia was talking with Arab countries that have ties with Hamas about getting Hamas and Fatah to return to the reconciliation agreement they signed, including the establishment of a Palestinian unity government. Two days later, Hamas said it would be willing to dismantle the administrative council it set up in the Gaza Strip as a substitute government and reach an agreement on forming a Palestinian unity government.
It would be premature to wait with bated breath for this statement to be implemented in practice. But Russia’s new involvement is noteworthy. In contrast to the agreements Hamas reached with Egypt a month ago, under which Gaza’s administrative council would be headed by Mohammed Dahlan – a Fatah member and rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – and contain both Hamas and Fatah members, Hamas is once again talking about a unity government.
Does this announcement mean it’s canceling its agreements with Egypt? According to Hamas sources, these are two parallel processes.
For now, the administrative council will continue negotiating with Egypt, with Dahlan serving as mediator, in an effort to get the Egypt-Gaza border crossing permanently reopened, perhaps in another month. The council’s day-to-day expenses will be funded by the United Arab Emirates, which has already allocated $15 million for this purpose and promised similar amounts in the coming months.
At the same time, Hamas will resume talks with the Palestinian Authority on how to divvy up government posts and prepare for new Palestinian presidential and legislative elections.
Russia’s involvement in both the internal Palestinian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian one isn’t unconnected to its regional strategy, especially management of the Syrian crisis, which is now exclusively in Russia’s hands. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Israel all understand that the only great power capable of working a miracle in Syria is Russia. Thus each of them is now seeking guarantees from Moscow that its interests will be protected.
Jordan, like Israel, disagrees with Russia over Iran’s status in Syria. Currently, the Syrian army has no presence in the country’s south, but Jordan fears that this situation will change. Thus it sought, and apparently secured, a promise from Lavrov that if the Syrian army returns to areas near the Jordanian border, it won’t let pro-Iranian forces, including foreign Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah, deploy in those areas alongside it.
In exchange, Syria asked Jordan to forge closer ties with the Assad regime, open the border crossings between the two countries and, later, restore diplomatic relations with the regime.
Russia, which effected a turnabout in the regime’s military position and the amount of territory it controls, is now investing most of its efforts in diplomatic moves meant to confer Arab and international legitimacy on Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hence the importance of Lavrov’s visit to the Middle East.
The test of these efforts will come in the Kazakh capital of Astana this weekend, when Syrian government officials and opposition representatives are slated to hold their sixth meeting. If this round of talks succeeds, it will be possible to set a date for a conference in Geneva to discuss a peace treaty.
But in its effort to build Arab support for its moves in Syria, Russia needs to jump two deep potholes. The first is the rift between the Gulf States and Egypt on one side and Qatar on the other. The second is the diplomatic standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Since American efforts to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in which U.S. President Donald Trump played an active role, have failed and the U.S. administration appears to be in hibernation regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia has embraced both these conflicts as leverage for advancing its interests. And this is why Hamas has become important, even though it isn’t considered a strategic player that can influence regional policy. Because Hamas is a piece in the chess match between Riyadh and Tehran, it has become essential to recruit it for the sake of the bigger game.
Hamas, Iran and Egypt
Over the past year, Hamas has intensified its overtures to Iran, which in turn has promised the organization aid. According to Arab media reports, Iran has given Hamas’ Lebanese branch about $20 million and has also resumed military training for Hamas operatives by Hezbollah.
Hamas officials both in Gaza and abroad occasionally issue statements asserting that relations with Iran are due to be resumed soon or that Iran has offered additional aid. But these statements contradict Hamas’ diplomatic efforts, which are aimed at rehabilitating its relations with Egypt. This discrepancy attests to the burning controversy between Hamas’ military wing, which is pushing to renew ties with Iran, and its political wing, headed by Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, which is promoting ties with Egypt and the Arab world.
Iran is also suffering an internal dispute over aid to Hamas, between the radical conservatives and the Revolutionary Guard. While the Guard is pushing to resume this aid, the radicals object on the grounds that since Hamas betrayed Syria, it doesn’t deserve aid.
This is why Russia attaches such importance to a Palestinian reconciliation, which would block a renewed rapprochement between Hamas and Iran and thereby satisfy the desires of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. If Russia can bring about such a reconciliation, it will achieve a double victory.
First, it will be seen as the only country capable of solving disputes in the region, especially given its recent “success” in Syria. Second, it will have made an important declarative contribution to blocking Iranian influence – and even though Russia and Iran have a joint interest in preserving Assad’s regime, Russia isn’t thrilled by Iran’s influence in the region.
The next question is how Israel should respond to Russia’s efforts. Israel has traditionally opposed reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, mainly because the schism lets it claim that Abbas doesn’t represent all Palestinians and therefore can’t be a peace partner (aside from its other standard excuses like accusing him of inciting and supporting terror). The separation between Gaza and the West Bank also allows Israel to conduct a policy of oppression in both territories.
But if Russia decides that Palestinian reconciliation is critical to its regional interests, Israel will have trouble maintaining its opposition, especially since it needs Russian guarantees against Iran’s consolidation in Syria. That’s why Israel has been maintaining radio silence about Russia’s moves – a silence accompanied by prayers that the Palestinians will once again spoil their own broth and save Israel from the need to make a decision.
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