Israel’s bombardment of the blockaded Palestinian Gaza strip for 11 consecutive days in May, has attracted global condemnation. Although international powers initially failed to call on Israel to desist, a ceasefire brokered by Egypt was finally reached on May 20. Yet US President Joe Biden’s meek position on the conflict has created a further diplomatic vacuum, which Russia may be looking to fill to become a potential mediator going forward.
On May 12, Russian officials called for a “quartet” of international mediators to help ease the violence, suggesting its keenness to be involved in negotiations. Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, told reporters that mediating talks was “the most acute task” to end a conflict that went on to take hundreds of lives.
Hamas also urged Moscow to intervene and broker a ceasefire. Deputy Head of Hamas’ political wing, Moussa Abu Marzouk, told Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on May 12 that Hamas was ready to halt military actions against Israel on a mutual basis. This, according to Marzouk, would be with “the understanding that the international community would put the necessary pressure on the Israeli side to stop the violent actions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem and [its] illegal measures against [the] indigenous Arab inhabitants.”
Moscow Outmaneuvering Washington
Although US President Joe Biden promised to enforce foreign policy centered around human rights, his administration has received criticism for being too soft on Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. For instance, during Israel’s plans to expel Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and its security forces’ violence towards demonstrators in early May.
Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American analyst, said in a statement: “ethnic cleansing is a serious crime, and tepid discouragements or expressions of concern from the Biden administration fall drastically short of what this moment calls for.”
Some leading Democratic politicians, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also voiced separate denunciations of the Biden administration’s reticence to stop Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and Gaza.
Biden reaffirmed his support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” despite the gross disproportionate loss of lives on the Palestinian side.
It appears Biden was never fully prepared to address the Israel-Palestine question, as he has only recently sought to appoint an ambassador to Israel. As the violence over Gaza escalated, he disappointingly claimed Israel’s attacks on Gaza were not “a significant overreaction.” Biden reaffirmed his support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” despite the gross disproportionate loss of lives on the Palestinian side, amounting to over 230, while 12 Israelis were reportedly killed during the conflict.
On May 15, Israeli jets blew up a large building in Gaza which hosted the offices of Al Jazeera, AP News, several other media companies, and around 60 private apartments. However, rather than condemning the move, the White House’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement, “We have communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”
Russia, on the other hand, has differed from Washington’s unconditional support for Israel. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Donald Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century “pretty vague.” Other Russian officials were critical of the “peace plan” as well, saying it simply reinforced Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, rather than bring a real solution that could achieve peace and Palestinian statehood.
Although Moscow was merely in effect criticizing Washington, rather than Israel, the comments were received positively within Palestine. And while Moscow enjoys strong ties with Israel, it has also criticized Israel’s settlement expansion policies in the West Bank. On May 12, another Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Vershinin, called on Israel to “immediately” halt all settlement activities in the Palestinian Territories.
Now, as Israel faces global pressure over its recent actions in Gaza, Moscow could look to move in and defuse the situation should tensions escalate again.
A Growing Russia-Hamas Partnership
Hamas and Russia may seem like unlikely partners on the surface. After all, Moscow has often lacked tolerance towards political Islamic factions. It was one of the few countries to officially designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, while Hamas was founded as a Brotherhood offshoot.
However, there was a series of rapprochement efforts in the years 2019 and 2020, as officials from Hamas and Russia met to boost bilateral ties. In March 2020, the chief of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Moscow and informed Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of his party’s intentions to reconcile with rival Palestinian faction Fatah, which runs the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA). Haniyeh also expressed his wishes for Russia, which he called a “friendly, brotherly nation,” to oversee a reconciliation process with the PA.
As Israel’s plans to annex the occupied West Bank loomed closer in June 2020, Haniyeh and other senior Hamas officials discussed their faction’s concerns over Israel’s plans with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in a meeting in Qatar, stating the annexation could dash Palestinian hopes for statehood.
Moreover, Hamas has not expressed opposition towards Moscow’s ties with Israel. This is because aside from Biden’s tepid stance on pressuring Israel, Washington still considers Hamas a terrorist organization. And although the Biden administration announced a restoration of ties with the Palestinians on January 26, the move was solely aimed at relations with the PA, rather than Hamas. Hamas would therefore be receptive to support from a global power like Russia.
For Russia’s part, there are clear diplomatic benefits for establishing ties with Hamas. The Palestinian faction fell out with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria after its crackdown on protestors during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Moscow meanwhile seeks to rehabilitate its ally Assad internationally, since it intervened in the Syrian civil war to protect his regime against opposition forces. Thus, it could hope to get Hamas on board with this goal.
Through relations with Hamas, Moscow could become a greater powerbroker over the Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Through relations with Hamas, Moscow could also become a greater powerbroker over the Israeli-Palestinian violence, and further expand its diplomatic credentials across the Middle East. After all, Moscow has played a crucial balancing act between different regional foes, such as maintaining ties with both Israel and Iran. Moscow could therefore look to prime itself as a mediator to halt Israel’s aggression in the long term.
Of course, Russia does face some obstacles. Given Israel’s overwhelming military advantage over Hamas, should the conflict reignite, Russia would need to encourage Israel to ease its offensive on Gaza. Moscow has little leverage over Israel in this regard, given Israel’s traditional dependency on American military support. Moreover, Israel may be waiting for Moscow to encourage Hamas to disarm.
At the very least, Moscow could play a prominent role in Hamas-PA unification talks. Yet for now, even though the recent Israel-Hamas conflict could enable Russia to boost its image as a successful Middle Eastern powerbroker if tensions remain high, there are factors that could complicate such efforts.