FRESH AIR

Russia Intrudes Into the Palestinian Arena

Jul 30, 2020 | Oved Lobel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 (image: Yuri Kochetkov)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017 (image: Yuri Kochetkov)

While the world has been focused on the Trump Administration’s peace plan and the potential for Israeli application of sovereignty to areas of the West Bank, Russia has been burrowing itself into the Palestinian arena. Although Russia is far too weak economically and militarily to actually displace the United States or resolve any crises, it can easily establish itself as a key stakeholder in the conflict as it has in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. 

On July 2, the warring Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, ruling the West Bank and Gaza respectively, held a rare joint press conference via video to present a united Palestinian front against potential Israeli extension of sovereignty. The sides were represented by Jibril Rajoub, the Secretary-General of Fatah’s Central Committee, and senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri. This joint press conference was announced immediately after a phone call from Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and Putin’s special envoy to the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov to Rajoub emphasising the need for Palestinian unity and a Fatah-Hamas dialogue.   

Following the joint press conference, PA Ambassador to Russia Abdel Hafiz Nofal told Izvestia that Russia had been key to Palestinian reconciliation and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Of course, Russia was and remains one of the most important players in resolving the crisis in the region; Moscow has repeatedly advocated the unification of Palestinian factions and the end of the split,” he said. “Her contribution to the settlement of the dispute is difficult to overestimate.” 

Russia has long been involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a member of Middle East Quartet, alongside the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Until recently, however, it was a relatively minor regional player, with the US being the only relevant global power in the peace process and more broadly in the Middle East. This regional dynamic began to change as the Obama administration sought to reduce American engagement in the Middle East while Russia successfully intervened in Syria. Shortly thereafter, Russia began trying to muscle its way into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It first offered to host a summit between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in September 2016 in Moscow, an offer that has been reiterated every year and which Israel has until now rejected. 

What makes recent Russian diplomatic manoeuvres qualitatively different from previous overtures is the vacuum that has opened up after Abbas’ decision to cut off all contact with the US following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017The US subsequently cut off all humanitarian and security funding to the PA, and previously close ties between the PA and the CIA, which had reportedly survived the political rift with the US, have allegedly been severed in recent months. 

In February 2018, shortly after Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a senior PA delegation headed by Abbas himself visited Moscow, with the explicit intention to make Russia the key player in a new multilateral negotiations format aimed at undermining the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian process, according to senior official Nabil Shaath.   

Since then, Russia has been exchanging a flurry of phone calls with  senior Fatah officials, including Hussein al-Sheikh and Jibril Rajoub, at a progressively increasing rate, as well as conducting several meetings with the PA ambassador in Moscow. And this is only the publicly reported diplomacy.  

While maintaining good ties with Israel, Russia upped the ante in the Palestinian sphere, hosting a Palestinian summit in Moscow in February 2019 with senior representatives of all the primary Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Although it failed to force Hamas and PIJ to sign onto its “Moscow Declaration” of Palestinian unity under the PLO political program, it kicked off much deeper ties with all the factions.  

Direct contacts with the PIJ, an explicit Iranian terrorist proxy in the conflict that Russia reportedly once designated a terrorist organisation, seem to be an outgrowth of the vacuum left by the US approach. The first open meeting with PIJ leadership occurred in 2018 in Moscow, less than two months after a Hamas delegation visit. PIJ leadership most recently visited Moscow in March 2020, as did Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. There, they expressed “appreciation for the Russian position in rejection of the deal of the century” US peace proposal, while Bogdanov met with Hamas’ leadership in Qatar on June 23.  

Russia has a long history with the Palestinians, using them as terrorist proxies and agents in a variety of conflicts across the world during the Cold War. They are therefore well-placed to fill the diplomatic vacuum with their former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) contacts, including Mahmoud Abbas himself, who was very close to Moscow and allegedly recruited as a KGB agent in the 1980s in Syria. According to terrorism analyst Yehudit Barsky, when Yasser Arafat wanted weapons in 2000 – ultimately leading to the Karine A affair involving the attempted smuggling of large amount of Iranian-supplied weapons – he sent a delegation to Moscow, where the Russians oversaw the meeting between the PLO and Iranian officials.  

Both the PA and Hamas have publicly announced they wish to engage Russia as the primary arbiter from now on. Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzuk said in July 2019 that only Russia was capable of supporting the Palestinians against the US, and PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki announced, “We trust President Vladimir Putin and are sure that such a meeting would bear fruit, and succeed in getting us back to the talks, as well as stopping the Israeli plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank… Palestine is willing to have talks with Israel via video conferencing and under Russian auspices.”   

In January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Abbas in Bethlehem, where the latter thanked him for “political, economic and cultural assistance, financial cooperation and aid to Palestine in the area of security” and praised Russia’s involvement in the Arab world, where it is “always working to resolve its problems.”  In July, Abbas called Putin to follow up on bilateral deals discussed in January as well as “the importance of strengthening intra-Palestinian unity” in the context of combatting any Israeli or American unilateral moves.  

The purpose of Russian moves is not primarily to achieve Palestinian unity under the PLO political program, as it constantly asserts – it knows very well this is likely impossible. Rather, sensing an opportunity to increase influence with all players at the perceived expense of the US, Russia is just trying to plant itself in the middle of the conflict and make itself an essential player, as it has done in numerous conflict zones across the region.  

The purported end of the CIA relationship with the PA may even open up additional space for Russia to increase its security influence on the ground, and indeed Israel is reportedly concerned about Russia’s training of Palestinian security forces, according to Israeli television station Channel 12.  Russia’s close relations and consultations on the issue with regional powers – including Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, and Iran – will also contribute to its budding influence in the Palestinian sphere.  

There does seem to be an internal shift in rhetoric and action on Palestinian unity, including an essay by former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad published in Time on June 30, on the need to unify all the Palestinian factions under a new PLO platform that rejects every agreement made with Israel and even the entire concept of “a Palestinian state on 22 percent of historic Palestine.” This shift across the Palestinian political spectrum – leading to the July 2 joint press conference and a planned joint rally in Gaza – is partially a result of Russian diplomacy and will present Putin with even greater opportunities in the future to try to play the Palestinian card against the US.  

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