JERUSALEM, Feb. 13 (JTA) — Russia’s readiness to hold talks with Hamas following the terrorist group’s victory in Palestinian parliamentary election has surprised and angered decision-makers in Israel. But how damaging is the Russian move likely to be? Israeli leaders worry that Russia’s overture to Hamas might become a precedent and that, if others follow suit, Israel’s attempt to force a Hamas-led government to moderate its anti-Israel positions or face international isolation will fail. More than diplomatic isolation, however, it’s the loss of economic aid that Hamas fears, and this comes not from Russia but mainly from the European Union and United States. If they withhold the $1.5 billion they transfer to the Palestinians every year, some hope it could impel Hamas to accept Israel’s three conditions for dialogue: Recognition of the Jewish state’s right to exist, renunciation of terrorism and acceptance of previous agreements the Palestinians have signed with Israel. Israel’s strategy is to show Hamas leaders and Palestinians in general that a radical government will not serve their interests. Through a combination of diplomatic and economic pressure, the aim is to force Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic line or face such intense popular discontent on the Palestinian side that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas might be forced to declare new elections, in which Hamas could be ousted. For the policy to work, however, Israel needs broad international support, which the Russian move threatens to erode. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was assigned to get the United States on board. In talks in Washington last week with American leaders, including an unscheduled meeting with President Bush, Livni secured an American commitment not to talk to Hamas unless it accepted the Israeli conditions for dialogue. Dov Weissglas and Shalom Turgeman, aides to Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, focused on Europe, urging Javier Solana, the European Union’s external affairs minister, not to transfer any of the E.U.’s massive aid package to a Hamas-led government — either directly, through development projects or through UNRWA, the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees. For now, the Europeans are listening — but what will happen if withholding aid money leads to intense suffering on the Palestinian side? And, Solana asked, was there not a danger that if Europe withheld funds, radical countries like Iran could step in to fill the vacuum? Weissglas assured Solana that Iran could not contribute anything remotely approaching the sums the Palestinians receive from Europe, and that withholding aid might force the Palestinians to be more pragmatic. Nevertheless, most Israeli pundits are skeptical and do not believe Europe will persist in denying funds to the Palestinians. Writing soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he intended to invite Hamas leaders to Moscow, Ma’ariv editor Amnon Dankner forecast the imminent collapse of international support for the Israeli position. “It seems that the next step is already written on the wall: Hamas will mumble something vague and deliberately misleading out of the side of its mouth in order to enable the international community to establish ties, open a dialogue and urge Israel to sit down and negotiate,” Dankner wrote. Israeli politicians were highly critical of the Russian move, seeing it as a cynical attempt to regain center stage in Middle Eastern affairs, regardless of the diplomatic or security costs to Israel. Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit described it as “a knife in the back.” Israeli pundits echoed the anger. “Putin has identified a rare and great opportunity to again become the central and chief player in the Middle East, the only one who can deliver and mediate between the parties. But he ignores the fact that he is playing a dirty game, and that the goal he scored was after the referee had already whistled for half-time,” Ma’ariv political analyst Ben Caspit commented. Though the Russians claimed they merely want to impress on Hamas the need to meet Israel’s conditions for dialogue, the pundits were not convinced. They argued that Russia would be conferring legitimacy on Hamas without the terrorist group having to change an ideology that calls for Israel’s destruction. Ha’aretz military analyst Ze’ev Schiff predicted that the Russian move would boomerang: Instead of becoming the only party in a position to mediate, he wrote, Russia no longer would be able to play the role of honest broker in peace talks. Moreover, Schiff said, the Russian gambit endangered the internationally backed “road map” peace plan. If France — which gave mixed signals that it might follow Russia’s lead — indeed did so, “that will be the end of the road map,” Schiff warned. Some saw a return to days when the Soviet Union served as the Arabs’ main foreign backer. Writing in Yediot Achronot, analyst Sever Plotzker warned that Russia would reap scant rewards. “Has Russia learned nothing from the Soviet Union’s support for Palestinian terror in the past?” he asked. “Its Middle Eastern policy was rife with errors, failures and strange alliances that led to Moscow being banished from every corner of the Middle East.” The experts agree that there is not a lot Israel can do about the Russian move, besides shoring up support in Europe and the United States. Israel’s responses are limited when dealing with a major power like Russia, they say. Avi Primor, head of European Studies at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, told Israel Radio that “relations with Russia are far too important to create a crisis over this.” Primor, who served as Israeli ambassador to the European Union, believes the European embargo on aid to the Palestinians could hold. Moreover, he claims that Israel has powerful economic leverage of its own. “Hamas was elected to improve the Palestinian standard of living,” he notes. “They can’t do that without our help.” Still, the big question remains: Will the Russian move set off a domino process that leaves Israel’s anti-Hamas policy in ruins?
Russia’s risky business