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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Between Hamas and Abbas

Why did Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas come to Moscow?

  The visit -- his fifth, or by some accounts, sixth -- had originally been planned for an earlier date, but Abbas postponed the trip due to turbulent events at home. In June, the militant opposition group Hamas staged an "Islamist revolt" and seized power in the Gaza Strip, branding the head of the Palestinian Authority a traitor. Under these difficult circumstances, Abbas, of course, could not make his planned visit.

Although the situation has not stabilized, tensions have died down a bit, and Abbas, taking advantage of the uneasy pause, traveled to Moscow.

Abbas can only win from the Moscow visit. Russian authorities had no plans to saddle the president of the Palestinian Authority with new projects and proposals. The Kremlin also made Abbas' life easier by avoiding any discussion that the Palestinians should behave more diplomatically toward Israel.

To be sure, Russia is in no position to offer its own original plan for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This "stagnation" in Middle East initiatives began during the Soviet era, when it became clear that there were no viable alternatives to the Camp David summits.

So Abbas did not come to Moscow so much to listen to Russia's ideas and plans. His real interest, as always, was to receive military, technical and financial assistance. Moscow promised all three. President Vladimir Putin even promised Abbas 50 armored personnel carriers, but only on the condition that he not use them in the internal Palestinian conflict.

And solving this internal conflict is perhaps the most important reason for Abbas' visit. The main Middle East battlefield today has unexpectedly become the new Palestinian-Palestinian conflict, not the old Palestinian-Israeli one. In light of this, Russia's role as a key player in the Middle East has unexpectedly grown.

Why should this be a surprise? It is well known that this is not the first time Moscow has attempted to position itself as an intermediary between followers of radical Islam and everybody else -- that is to say, Europe and the United States.

Hamas' parliamentary victory in January 2006 became a sort of unexpected justification for Moscow to start a public dialogue with radical Islamists. In addition, it has given Russian diplomats an opportunity to find their own niche in the Middle East peace process. Moscow has the chance to conduct itself as a "sovereign" nation. It also gives Russia a chance to support its claims that it performs a unique function among members of the Middle East Quartet -- composed of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- in solving the Palestinian-Israeli and Palestinian-Palestinian conflicts.

Immediately following Hamas' parliamentary victory, Russia hoped to achieve the impossible -- recognition of Israel -- when they invited leaders of Hamas to Moscow for talks. Those hopes did not pan out, however.

As it turns out, Hamas has dug in its heels. The group not only refused to compromise, it managed to divide the Palestinians. Hamas has undermined Abbas' leadership, and it has essentially foiled any hopes for a Middle East settlement.

On the other hand, Russian diplomats have a new opportunity to reconcile the Palestinian groups, which bitterly oppose each other. Moscow contends that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can't be resolved without internal agreement among the Palestinians. The internal Palestinian dissension has turned out to be much deeper than originally thought, however.

While Abbas was in Moscow, he tried to deny that the disagreements with Hamas were discussed. Within Hamas, however, this issue was openly acknowledged. On the eve of Abbas' visit, Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal called Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's office to say that Hamas was ready to recognize Abbas as the sole leader of the Palestinian Authority.

For Russian diplomats, that phone call might have been a sign of their success, were it not for one problem: Hamas itself is divided into two factions -- radicals headed by former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and moderates led by Meshaal. Haniyeh's group is clearly not ready to give unqualified recognition to Abbas as the Palestinian Authority's leader.

Hamas might very well have been counting on the possibility that the Foreign Ministry would put pressure on Abbas to be more conciliatory in his dealings with the Islamists. It is obvious that those hopes were unjustified. Moscow is actually closer to the position held by Abbas, who, in addition to being the successor to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, also defended his doctoral thesis in Moscow.

Moreover, Russia cannot ignore the fact that the majority of Arab nations -- most notably, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- have little sympathy for Hamas. It is not surprising that they recently condemned Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

The fact that Abbas in Moscow reiterated his unwillingness to both negotiate with Hamas and to restore the coalition government does not mean that Russia will give up its role as an intermediary in the Middle East talks. All the more so considering that among the other members of the Middle East Quartet, some believe that negotiations must include Palestinian Islamists who, by the way, enjoy support from a considerable percentage of the Palestinians.

In all likelihood, Abbas left Moscow in a good mood. He met with Putin, who once again expressed his support for the Palestinian president. Moreover, Abbas received some material assistance. With regard to the Kremlin's declaration that unity is needed within the Palestinian Authority, Moscow's leaders were in agreement that such unity can only be achieved when all sides acknowledge Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian Authority.

From Moscow, Abbas traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday. In contrast to the Russians, the Americans are very active; they are constantly presenting or refining new proposals. Persistent rumors are circulating today that Israel and the Palestinians are on the verge of reaching some new agreement. It would be nice to believe.

But what should we do about Hamas?

Alexei Malashenko is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.