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In Moscow, Hamas Talks Pay off — for Russia’s War Effort in Chechnya

March 7, 2006
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Russia’s invitation to Hamas to come to Moscow for talks failed to yield any concessions from the terrorist group that is about to take over the Palestinian Authority — but it may have paid some dividends for Moscow. Russian critics of the visit — including most of the nation’s leading newspapers and political analysts — accused President Vladimir Putin of double standards on terrorism and said Russia’s gamble was targeted at boosting the country’s global influence, which has declined greatly since Soviet times.

Now that the visit is over, some say Moscow satisfied its ambition without striking a mortal blow to Russian-Israeli relations. Israel was furious that Russia undermined its efforts to isolate a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, arguing that while Hamas leaders offered no concessions at the talks — they refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel — an invitation from one of the countries overseeing the “road map” peace plan, which Hamas rejects, conferred invaluable international legitimacy on the group.

Israel and the United States have classified Hamas as a terrorist organization, saying one can’t make a distinction between its political and military wings. The Kremlin has never officially included Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations, but has refused to make a similar distinction between the military and political wings of the Chechen separatist movement that has carried out several high-profile terrorist attacks in Russia.

What may well have been the main dividend for Russia was a point made by the head of the Hamas delegation, Khaled Meshaal, who described the Chechen issue as an internal Russian problem.

That statement angered Chechen rebels, who were hoping for Hamas support of their cause. The Kremlin long has tried to destroy the international support Chechen separatists receive from Islamists outside Russia, and Hamas’ stance on the issue may prove important for Moscow’s fight there.

Regardless of what the Kremlin wanted from the visit, it was received with much passion by many Russian Jews. A prominent Russian Jewish leader voiced his protest on the eve of the visit.

“Putin should have taken the opinion of Russian Jews into consideration,” Mikhail Chlenov, general secretary of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, wrote in a statement March 2. “I find it difficult to judge what President Putin is striving for, but we, Russian Jews, do not want to host child murderers.”

Russia should have heeded “millions of our relatives and friends who live in Israel,” Chlenov said. “This is not only a foreign policy problem, but also our own.”

In the small eastern Russian town of Kamensk-Uralskiy, local Jewish activists issued a statement protesting the visit. The activists said they were prompted by the memory of a town native, a 14-year girl who was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel in 2001.

Another top Jewish leader praised Putin for the initiative.

Adolf Shayevich, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, described the invitation as a “contribution to strengthening relations with the Jewish state.”

The Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group, refrained from commenting on the visit. But on the eve of Hamas’ arrival, the group’s newspaper published two columns criticizing the visit. One carried a headline “Back to the USSR?” — a reference to Russia’s attempts to once again project influence in the Middle East, as it used to in the days of the Soviet Union.

Putin did not meet with the delegation personally, which some observers interpreted as a desire not to damage relations with Israel any further.

Once the Hamas delegation left the Russian capital for Damascus, Putin called interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday to discuss the talks, the Kremlin said.

“Putin stressed several times during the conversation that Russia would not take any step directed against Israeli interests, nor harm Israel’s security,” the statement by Olmert’s office said after the 40-minute telephone conversation.

Given a chance to present its vision of a dialogue, Hamas did its job perfectly, sarcastically commented Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies, a Moscow think-tank.

Although the visit was a perfect opportunity for Hamas to present a more moderate face, the group did not appear willing to involve in any constructive cooperation with Israel. The most it offered was a continuation of tenuous year-old truce, along with demands that Israel evacuate all the territory it won in the 1967 war as a precondition for talks.

“In Moscow, Hamas made its stand on a dialogue with Israel crystal clear: an unconditional capitulation of Israel,” Satanovsky said. “So what was billed as an opening of a dialogue has in fact turned into its closing.”

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