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Russia Rocks the Boat with Hamas

By Steve Schippert

With what began as a largely unified reaction to the prospects of a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the waters have muddied substantially in the past week. The Washington Post nails it with the following portion of an editorial, Confused on Hamas, provided below for its significance:

The United States and its allies in the so-called Quartet for Middle East policy -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- got off to a good start by spelling out three conditions for Hamas to meet in exchange for recognition: the renunciation of violence, acceptance of Israel and agreement to existing Palestinian-Israeli accords. The Bush administration and Israel have gone a step further, ruling out any aid or financial transfers to a Hamas government, though not necessarily independent aid groups working with the Palestinian population, if the political conditions are not met.

Had the Quartet remained united in this approach, Hamas might have been forced to choose between transforming itself into a peaceful political movement or failing in its goal of establishing an effective Palestinian government. But before the international pressure could even begin to build, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a safety valve by inviting Hamas to send a delegation to Moscow. His initiative was quickly backed by France -- the other nation in the Quartet with a history of trying to play Middle East politics to its own advantage. Having broken the diplomatic embargo, Hamas now needs only money: If it can squeeze enough from Gulf states, Iran or, eventually, Europe, it will establish the principle that Islamic fundamentalists openly committed to suicide bombing and the destruction of Israel need not alter their policies to rule. That means a triumph for Osama bin Laden and Iran's extremist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Russia is attempting to reassert itself in the region as a heavy hitter, with no small amount of regional influence and contacts lost with the fall of Saddam Hussein, the continuing problem that Chechnya portrays to Muslims and the region and the historical baggage of the war in Afghanistan. Gambling that the world will largely cave and eventually accept and fund a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Moscow has invited Hamas leadership to Moscow for talks in March, in defiance of the spirit of the Quartet’s unified stance that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence (meaning against Israeli civilians) and to honor existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has refused calls for the recognition of Israel and calls to honor existing agreements and has not renounced violence.

Further upsetting the perceived unity of the Quartet, if the meeting in March goes well in the eyes of the Russians, they may go forward with planned sales of 50 armored personnel carriers and two helicopters to the Hamas-led PA. This will amount to not only a terrorist organization in governance, but a terrorist organization being openly armed by another state, with governance as the alibi. Russia, no stranger to Islamic terror, has never recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization.

The United States has remained steadfast in its insistence that Hamas will receive no aid funding from the American government. The EU has been much less stalwart, and an indication of this is the French support of the Russian invitation of Hamas leaders. Next week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will tour the Middle East to persuade the Arab states not to fund Hamas and make up for the potential loss of up to $1 billion in aid gifts from the EU and the United States. Rice’s trip will come on the tail of a Hamas tour of the region during this past week in attempts to persuade regional Arab states that they do precisely that.

Israel itself is planning sanctions, many of which may take effect the moment the Hamas MP’s are officially sworn into office. Israel is considering:

• Ending $55 million monthly taxation transfers to the PA.
• Sealing Gaza and preventing Palestinians from entering Israel and severely restricting the travel of MP’s to and from the West Bank.
• Closing the Rafah crossing with Egypt

The split among the Quartet will only get deeper. Hamas will keep their name off any attacks on Israel, allowing al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad to do the heavy lifting for them, allowing for a more ‘stately’ outward appearance for Hamas and lending credibility of the Russian inclusion of Hamas. The EU will likely eventually allow most of its traditional funding to find its way to Hamas, especially if Russia praises its meetings with Hamas leadership. The UN cannot be far behind the curve once France and Russia begin to see eye to eye.

The Quartet is beginning to look far more like two pair than four of a kind, and may rapidly resemble three of a kind, leaving the American-Israeli stance the familiar odd card out.

(Interview Audio Files of Abu Nasser, Deputy Commander of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Courtesy of The John Batchelor Show)

Notes