Last November, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov renewed Russia’s 2017 offer to act as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, claiming that a “solution to the oldest regional problem” was a prerequisite to creating “stability in the Middle East.” Lavrov’s announcement came in the wake of – and was followed by – bilateral attempts by Moscow to forge an end to the Palestinian civil war by hosting representatives from Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. Russia’s intensified involvement in the Palestinian domain comes at a time of competing geopolitical objectives between regional and non-regional players. Israeli attempts to thwart weapon transfers from Iran to Shi’a-proxy Hezbollah have led to confrontations on the Syrian warfront between Russia and Israel. At the same time, relations between the Palestinians and the United States are at an all-time low. By leveraging Palestinian wariness of the Trump administration, Moscow seeks the dual goal of directly challenging the United States’ traditional role as Mideast peace broker while expanding its sphere of economic and political influence in the Levant.
Following President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, Russia has increasingly intervened in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere as an independent, third-party actor, shifting away from prior, multilateral endeavors. During a high-profile trip by Hamas to Moscow in 2006, Lavrov indicated that Russia, as a member of the Middle East Quartet, would convey a stance shared by “the United States and other international mediators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” With the Palestinian Authority having vowed to not cooperate with U.S. peace efforts due to their perceived pro-Israel bias, however, Russia now offers the Palestinians an appealing alternative. In a bid to secure a key mediatory role, Russian officials have ensured their Palestinian interlocutors of their intention to oppose the anticipated U.S. peace plan, dubbed the “deal of the century.”
In another sign of political convergence, Russia rejected the U.S.-sponsored UN resolution to condemn Hamas for firing rockets at Israel, for inciting violence, and for its use of resources in Gaza to construct military infrastructure. Russia’s move was aligned with Fatah leaders who argued that the resolution, which failed to pass on Dec. 6, “was harmful to the Palestinian national project and struggle.” Russia’s more Palestine-centric politicking has been embraced by Palestinian officials. In September, Abdel Hafiz Nofal, the Palestinian ambassador to Russia, told Sputnik, an agency controlled by the Russian government, that Russia should play an “active role” in peace negotiations as “25 years of negotiations [have] been fruitless [and] it’s clear that Israel is being backed by the United States.” Speaking of his trip to Moscow last month, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki similarly noted that he welcomed “Russian-level efforts to restore the political process to its right track.”
Russia’s heightened involvement in Palestinian matters comes amid tensions in Moscow’s relations with Tel Aviv over Russia’s ongoing military cooperation with Syria and its direct engagement with Hamas. The Israeli-Russian relationship was tested by the accidental downing of a Russian aircraft following an Israeli airstrike on a suspected Iranian facility near Latakia on Sept. 17. Moscow rejected Israeli claims of full military coordination and held Israel responsible for the deaths of 15 Russian servicemen in what the Russian Defense Ministry termed “an act of criminal negligence.” An alleged Israeli attack on an arms depot near Damascus last month was also lambasted by Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which deemed it a “provocative action […] of the Israeli air force.”
Israeli officials, in turn, have been critical of Russia’s decision to transfer advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to the Assad regime. With the supply of the air defense system, which came in the wake of the friendly fire incident between the Russian and Syrian air forces, Russia has defied protests by Israel. These concerns center on the system’s intended disruption of airborne radar communication and controls, which could complicate Israeli efforts to prevent Iran from creating a land bridge to Shi’a proxies in Lebanon – a fear that has increased following President Trump’s announcement that U.S. forces would withdraw from Syria. Israeli officials have also criticized Moscow’s anticipated hosting of Ismail Haniyeh, political bureau head of Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist group. Haniyeh was invited to visit Russia to discuss bilateral relations and political developments in Palestine with the Russian leadership.
The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) appears equally unhappy with Hamas’ welcome by Moscow. According to a PA official, Russian engagement with Hamas not only undermines Egyptian mediation efforts to end the Hamas-Fatah rivalry but also has the potential to deepen Palestinian division by turning the Gaza Strip into an independent entity. With Russia providing important strategic assets to the PA, however, any criticism by the PA is likely to remain measured. Beyond Moscow’s perceived favoring of the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia offers the prospect of economic investment. Lavrov has indicated his desire for further bilateral economic engagement by investing in agricultural projects and implementing industrial zones in Bethlehem and Jericho, a particularly attractive prospect given that the IMF projects that Gaza’s economic crisis will spill over to the West Bank in 2019, leading to reduced GDP growth and a stagnation in private sector activity. Early signs of an increase in bilateral trade came in 2018, when trade between Russia and Palestine rose by 61% during the first eight months, reaching $3.6 million. Anticipating further economic cooperation, in early November, Russia and the PA signed a roadmap for the development of trade and economic cooperation until 2021.
In its quest for greater influence in the Palestinian sphere, Russia faces strong regional competition, including from Saudi Arabia, which has crafted a foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that is more closely aligned with the United States and – indirectly – Israel. Following the withdrawal of U.S. aid, Saudi Arabia handed over a three-month sum worth $60 million to the PA in November as a means of supporting “the Palestinian cause at various political, economic, and humanitarian levels.” In return, despite public protest, President Abbas reaffirmed his support for the kingdom and its adopted narrative on the Khashoggi affair. With an ever-worsening financial crisis, Abbas stands to offer his ear to the highest bidder; for Moscow, this means that the pursuit of geopolitical clout will depend on the depth of its coffers.
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