Moscow as mediator? Why Russia is hosting Palestinian unity talks

From 29 February to 2 March, there will be an intra-Palestinian meeting in Moscow under the Russian government’s auspices. Officials representing Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and approximately ten other Palestinian factions received invitations and will participate.

“Moscow’s goal is to help the various Palestinian forces agree to unite their ranks politically,” said Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for the Middle East and Africa.

While Israel, the US, and other Western governments recognise a host of these Palestinian organisations as terrorist entities, Moscow does not.

By hosting these factions, Russia is promoting a narrative about Moscow being a defender of the Palestinian cause, which sends a strong message to the wider Arab-Islamic world and the Global South at large.

This of course comes at a time in which Washington’s ironclad support for Israeli war crimes in Gaza has severely eroded US soft power influence outside the West.

"Moscow seeks to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Russia can host an inter-Palestinian dialogue without necessarily taking any faction's side" 

Moscow’s dealings with Hamas

Russia has a record of engaging Hamas. Over the years, Hamas representatives have paid visits to Moscow, which has constituted a source of tension in Russia’s relationship with Israel.

Nonetheless, Putin’s government has managed to avoid allowing its engagement with Hamas to create any major crisis in Moscow-Tel Aviv relations. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Hamas is an actor that Russia must deal with as Moscow strives to assert greater influence in the Middle East and, specifically, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In late October 2023, Russia invited Hamas representatives to Moscow. At the time, the Kremlin was focused on securing the release of dual Israeli-Russian citizens held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. Such efforts led to positive results.

After the Hamas members arrived in Moscow, they received a list of hostages with Russian citizenship whom the Russian government wanted the Palestinian group to free at once.

“We are very attentive to this list and will process it carefully because we look at Russia as our closest friend,” explained Mousa Abu Marzouk, a senior member of Hamas, while speaking to RIA Novosti news agency during Hamas’s visit to Moscow. “As soon as we find them, we’ll release them.”

By early November, Hamas made good on those words and released three Israeli-Russian hostages. One was Roni Krivoi, the first adult male hostage with an Israeli passport to be released by Hamas since 7 October.

“We are grateful to the leadership of the Hamas movement for their positive response to our urgent appeals,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova after their release. “We will continue to strive for the speedy release of the remaining Russians held in the Gaza Strip.”

It can be taken for granted that securing the release of remaining hostages will be a priority for Moscow as it engages further with Hamas. Russia’s ability to leverage its relationship with Hamas serves Moscow’s interests vis-à-vis Tel Aviv.

Putin playing this card can help dissuade Israel from being tempted to join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia or arming Ukraine two years into Moscow’s war against its smaller neighbour.

Russian diplomacy amid the Gaza war

The upcoming inter-Palestinian meeting in Moscow needs to be understood within the wider context of Russia’s past few months of diplomacy vis-à-vis the Israeli war on Gaza. As Dr Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, explained in an interview with The New Arab, Moscow has engaged in two layers of diplomacy since this war began. Both remain in motion.

First, the Kremlin is engaging the major state actors with stakes in Gaza, which include Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Such shuttle diplomacy has been part of a grander Russian strategy of asserting Moscow’s clout in the Middle East and promoting multipolarity. Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joining together as UN Security Council members in calling for a ceasefire is one example.

Second, because of tensions in Israeli-Russian relations, the Kremlin has focused on inter-Palestinian dialogue over dialogue between the Palestinians and Israel. Officials in Moscow are “looking toward the end of the war and they’re trying to use the fact that they can engage with the [Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)], Hamas, and even Islamic Jihad,” according to Dr Ramani.

“Islamic Jihad has a different tune than Hamas, even on the hostages. They’re much more radical. They’re much more recalcitrant about any kind of diplomacy. If [the Russians] can bring them to Moscow and get them talking with the other factions that would be something noteworthy and interesting to think about too,” he added.

"Because of tensions in Israeli-Russian relations, the Kremlin has focused on inter-Palestinian dialogue over dialogue between the Palestinians and Israel" 

A dialogue that helps Russia with optics

Moscow seeks to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Russia can host an inter-Palestinian dialogue without necessarily taking any faction’s side. This is important to Moscow’s balancing act in the Arab world, where different states have various views on Hamas.

For example, Qatar, on one end of the spectrum, accepts the reality of Hamas as a player in the Palestinian political space. But the UAE, on the other end, opposes the group largely due to ideological reasons – specifically Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood origins.

Despite some commentators’ baseless claims of a Russia-Hamas “alliance”, Putin’s government chooses to not take sides in inter-Palestinian power struggles. Indeed, being overtly pro-Hamas would upset Abu Dhabi, which Russia is generally keen to avoid doing given that the UAE is, by far, Moscow’s best friend in the GCC.

Rather than taking sides in Palestinian politics, Moscow has decided to “act as a convening power that can bring together the PLO, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad for dialogue,” Dr Ramani told TNA.

Russia playing this diplomatic role two years after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine serves to counter Western efforts to isolate Moscow internationally. “Regardless of the outcome of the meeting, pro-Kremlin propaganda will use it to show that Russia is not isolated in the global arena,” explained Nikola Mikovic, a Belgrade-based political analyst, in a TNA interview.

While bringing various Palestinian factions together for this meeting bodes well for Russia in terms of optics, some analysts question whether this dialogue in Moscow has a shot at producing concrete results.

“Of course, it’s impossible to see Islamic Jihad making concessions right now…Very little substantive will come out of this,” said Dr Ramani, who also questions the likelihood of the PLO being willing to concede much to Hamas and other Palestinian groups on delicate issues.

"While bringing various Palestinian factions together for this meeting bodes well for Russia in terms of optics, some analysts question whether this dialogue has a shot at producing concrete results" 

Other analysts have a similar assessment. “Russia’s influence in Palestine is very limited, and I don’t think Moscow is in a position to force Palestinian factions to unite, especially given that each group is supported by different regional actors,” Mikovic told TNA. “I will be very surprised if Moscow manages to persuade Hamas to form a partnership with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority,” added the Serbian expert on Russian foreign policy.

“Hamas and other Palestinian groups are very naïve if they really think that Russia – a country that, two years after the invasion of Ukraine, has not achieved any of its goals in the Eastern European nation – can help them achieve their goals in the Middle East. Besides, if Russia never protects its ally Syria from Israeli airstrikes, it is rather questionable if the Kremlin really aims to help Palestinians in their struggle for independence,” explained Mikovic.

Looking ahead, there are several key questions to raise about what this inter-Palestinian meeting in Moscow will mean for the future of Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East. It is unclear how Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian factions scattered across Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries will look at Russia after the dust eventually settles in Gaza.

Might these Palestinian groups ask Moscow to become more involved in diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving tensions between Palestinian groups, or perhaps as a bridge between the Palestinians and Israel?

Time will tell. But even if so, Egypt and Qatar – and not Russia – will probably remain the main mediators vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine. Dr Ramani doubts that this upcoming inter-Palestinian meeting in Moscow will lead to any “long-term seismic change in the geopolitical landscape” although he predicts a “temporary optical win for the Russians”.

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