Why Hamas’ Russian diplomacy initiative could bother Israel

In early May, Moscow accepted the request of a visiting Hamas delegation to mediate between rival Palestinian factions. This diplomatic achievement gives Hamas new ways to challenge Israel; both in consolidating its own political standing in the Palestinian territories and by shifting Russia’s views on the merits of its security cooperation with Tel Aviv.

Hamas’ domestic consolidation

Since 2007, Hamas, which governs Gaza, has been rivals with Fatah, which forms the Palestinian Authority (PA) governing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their conflicting stances on Israel are a major cause for this split – with Hamas’ policy of military deterrence against Israel contrasting starkly with the PA’s security cooperation with Tel Aviv.

Both Hamas and the PA’s approaches have complicated their relationship with the Palestinian population. The PA’s more diplomatic strategy – resulting, inter alia, in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s – led to the deterioration of its support. Israel’s failure to slow its project of settlement expansionism, despite the spirit of the agreement reached, disillusioned the Palestinian population from its diplomatic approach. Hamas’ enhanced military capabilities and Israel’s recent failures to subdue Gaza, on the other hand, have allowed it to grow its popularity among the dissatisfied West Bank Palestinians.

Bringing Russia into the diplomatic equation helps Hamas gain more political ground at the expense of the PA; whose historical compliance with a US monopoly over Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy is widely resented by Palestinians. Importantly, it signals a shift in Palestinian leadership: with Palestinian representation being in the hands of Hamas, and the PA being sidelined in decision-making.

This decisive transition and focus on Hamas leadership translates to a larger, more organized resistance against Israeli authority and settlement construction in the West Bank. In fact, beyond consolidating domestic power, Hamas’ Russian diplomacy initiative also enables it to challenge Israel at a regional level; not least because it complicates Russia’s alignment with Israel in countering Iranian presence in Syria. 

Russia’s Israel-Iran calculus

Russia’s military coordination mechanism with Israel in Syria and its pledge to restrain Iran and Hezbollah’s forces in Syria from confronting Israel show Moscow’s alignment with Tel Aviv on countering Iran’s regional presence.

However, closer contact with Hamas could make Russia rethink the merits of aligning with Israel against Iran.

Hamas, after all, is part of Iran’s regional alliance, which spans across Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Yemen. While Hamas is not taking its cue from Iran in its engagement with Russia, its strategic ties with Tehran are still relevant to its outreach to Moscow.

Iran’s role as Hamas’ sole military supplier renders Iran the guarantor of Hamas’ political relevance. Hamas’ prospects of side-lining the PA and becoming the leaders the Palestinian populace rely on is grounded in their military capabilities. Without Iran shoring up its military prowess, Hamas loses the foundations of its political standing.

This complicated web of alliances and enemies muddies the diplomatic waters for Russia. After all, it cannot credibly mediate between Palestinian factions if it appears intent on undermining either of them. So, Moscow will need to accept Iran’s strategic depth in the Palestinian Territories as a firmly rooted reality that must be worked with, rather than challenged.

This diplomatic picture, however, may not be as easy to draw as Moscow might expect. A Russian diplomatic role in the Palestinian Territories that does not treat Iran as a threat will bother Israel considerably and show that Russia’s commitment to its present Israel-leaning view of regional security is not ironclad.

The Ukraine factor

The Ukrainian War is leading to a fork in the road between Russia and Israel. Israel’s pro-Ukrainian statements, and its hints towards support for Kiev, have already frustrated the diplomatic ties Tel Aviv and Moscow once shared. It has been suggested that Russia’s increased accommodation of Hamas is tied to its resentment towards Israel over Ukraine; something that has not been ignored by Hamas’ political class. It has recognised the weakened relationship between Russia and Israel, and has taken it as an opportunity to boost its importance to Russia and its allies.

Additionally, a Ukraine-based Russian interest in Palestinian diplomacy can balloon into a bigger problem for Israel than just a bilateral disagreement between it and Russia. As reported by the National Interest’s CEO Dimitri Simes after extensive meetings with officials in Moscow, their dispute is making Russian officials question cooperating with Israel vis-à-vis Iran, and even consider mending Russian ties with Iran in retaliation for Israel’s support of Ukraine.

Russia can kickstart this ‘Plan B’ by using its Hamas-induced role among Palestinians. Namely, Moscow can use Hamas’ strategic ties with Iran to portray Russian policy on the Palestinian Territories as defying Israel at the geopolitical level, caused by Tel Aviv’s pro-Kiev moves. If this does not prove enough to shift Israeli policy on Ukraine, Russia can distance itself from Israel – and draw itself closer to Iran – by threatening to halt its cooperation against Iran in Syria wholesale.

Thus, the Ukraine factor – and the political relationships it has forged and broken – improves Hamas’ chances of driving a diplomatic wedge between Russia and Israel.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.