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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Moscow plays power broker by hosting Palestinian unity talks

Observers say the meetings aimed at fostering Palestinian unity are little more than diplomatic theatre

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with Security Council permanent members in Moscow, on February 8, 2019. AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with Security Council permanent members in Moscow, on February 8, 2019. AFP

As Russia takes on an increasingly active role in the Middle East, it appears to have found a new intractable goal to tackle: brokering Palestinian unity.

Moscow is hosting three days of talks between Palestinian political factions starting on Monday, with the aim of giving the groups an opportunity to discuss obstacles to “restoring unity in the Palestinian ranks”.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry specifically named the main Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, in their statement confirming the meetings which began on Monday. The two factions have been at odds since 2007 when Hamas violently wrested control of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas says the Palestinian Authority, which is run by Fatah, should pay the salaries of public servants in the Gaza Strip who were appointed after the rift. Meanwhile, Fatah insists that Hamas dissolve its military wing, saying that the Palestinian Authority can legitimately bear arms.

The venue for the talks is the Institute of Oriental Studies, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a doctoral student. KGB documents made public in 2016 suggest that Mr Abbas may have been recruited as Soviet agent during his stint in Moscow, but the Palestinians deny this, calling it an Israeli smear.

His rival, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was due to visit Moscow in January, but his visit was postponed just days in advance. This time around, the participation of the main groups including Islamic Jihad was confirmed by the Palestinian Embassy in Russia on Monday.

An embassy spokesperson added that the Palestinian delegates would be received by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday. According to Palestinian state-run media, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met briefly with Fatah officials before the talks began.

Despite hosting the conference, Russia’s ability to bring the sides together is limited, observers say, adding that the factions invited to the talks have their own reasons for participating.

Ghaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, says both Fatah and Hamas, the only participants with real clout, are coming to Moscow for tactical reasons and have no intention of making any substantive moves.

“Hamas, which craves international recognition, will argue to its public that its presence in Moscow shows that it is no longer isolated,” Mr Al-Omari told The National. “For Fatah, participating in the talks will allow it to argue to its public that it is engaged in reconciliation.”

“Nothing much will be achieved in the coming three days,” he added.

The talks in Moscow come just one week after the Kremlin hosted representatives from the Taliban and opposition Afghan officials. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will host his Iranian and Turkish counterparts as part of efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict in Syria.

For Russia, which has played an increasingly dominant role in the Middle East in recent years, hosting talks on Palestinian unity is another opportunity to showcase its ability to speak to both sides of any conflict, analysts said.

“Russia wants to demonstrate again and again that it can negotiate with everyone,” said Anton Mardasov, a Russian Middle East analyst. “Today, with Israel, tomorrow with Hamas, the day after, with Egypt and Qatar.”

Mr Mardasov said Russia may be shoring up its position with Palestinian leaders in advance of the US plans to unveil its strategy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. US President Donald Trump is reportedly planning on announcing his “deal of the century” after Israeli elections in April.

Russia has repeatedly said it is prepared to host Israeli-Palestinian talks. And Mr Abbas, who most recently visited Moscow in July last year, told Russian state-run media in February that he is prepared to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in talks brokered by Russia.

“We're talking here about the fact that the United States cannot be the only mediator,” he said. “We trust President Putin, and we're ready to accept his invitation at any time.”

Palestinian officials are calling on the leaders of Arab countries to boycott a conference addressing Middle East stability organised by the United States beginning in Poland this week. The chief Palestinian organiser Saeb Erekat has said: “We are not going to attend this conference and reiterate that we have not mandated anyone to talk on behalf of Palestine."

Updated: February 11, 2019 08:29 PM

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