Moscow plans to talk with Hamas

An influential member of the Middle East Quartet recognises the elected government in PalestineMarianna Belenkaya BeirutThe international community is shocked by the Kremlin's plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to invite the leaders of the Hamas Islamic resistance movement, which won the January elections in Palestine, to Moscow. Russia has become the first of the Middle Eastern Quartet of intermediaries (the other members are the United States, the European Union and the UN) to openly proclaim the intention to talk with Hamas at the top level. The situation looks ambiguous, because Israel, the US and the EU regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and Russia is their ally in the war on terror. This is why Arabs view the Russian president's intention as a challenge to the US and a blow at Israel's policy. But Moscow does not wish to terminate its partner relations with these countries. So, what is behind Putin's words? There are two reasons behind the Kremlin's decision to talk with Hamas. To begin with, it wants to show publicly that it remains an influential force in the Middle East, and that it respects the interests of both sides in the Palestine-Israel conflict. The second reason is Russia's growing rapprochement with Islamic countries. It does not need a conflict of civilisations, which would undermine its national stability. Therefore, Moscow is trying to act as an intermediary between the Arab world and the West, and regards relations with Hamas as part of this mediation. No other member of the Middle Eastern Quartet can talk with Hamas without damaging its commitments to its people and the international community. But Moscow never agreed to consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. Under the Russian law, only illegal organisations operating in Russia are defined as terrorist. Moreover, Putin said at his news conference in the Kremlin in late January thatit would be wrong to isolate Hamas, which had come to power through democratic elections. Diplomatic sources say, "Many Western diplomats, including the Americans, maintain contacts with Hamas without publicly admitting the fact. Russia is simply playing an open game." The UN has not forbidden ties with Hamas. In fact, the international community will have to deal with it unless the intermediaries want to bury the Middle Eastern peace settlement. Hamas is currently the only real force in the territory controlled by the Palestinian National Authority. It will never accept peace settlements made without its involvement, and the language of ultimatums is unacceptable in this case. So, dialogue it must be, and the international intermediaries understand this. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on the day when Putin made public his intention to talk with Hamas that the organisation should be given time to reconsider its hard-line positions. Washington is not outraged by Putin's intention either. But the US administration expects Russia to explain its position and hopes that its ties with Hamas will be maintained within the framework of the Quartet's agreements. This is exactly what Moscow intends to do. "Our goal is to inform the Hamas leaders about the clear and unambiguous stand of the international community regarding the need to take responsible decisions meeting the basic interests of Palestinians and facilitating the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state in a peaceful and safe coexistence with Israel," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. During his planned meeting with the Hamas leaders, President Putin will speak about the Quartet's hopes that the new Palestinian administration would renounce terror, recognise Israel and respect all previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements, including the roadmap for a peaceful settlement. Russian diplomats say that Hamas will not make a political U-turn overnight. It needs reasons for doing this, including changes in its policy regarding Israel, which means the recognition of its right to exist. However, the latter seems impossible at this stage. So, no significant statements should be expected at the Moscow talks. It will bea meeting held to establish dialogue so as to prevent a collapse in the Middle East. Moreover, the meeting could be cancelled by a deterioration of the regional situation.