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September 28, 2022 10:39 am
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Moscow Cozies Up With Hamas to Pressure Israel

avatar by John Hardie and Ivana Stradner

Opinion

Russian FM Sergei Lavrov and Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif exchange documents during a signing ceremony following a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin.

A delegation from the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, led by Politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh, made a multi-day visit to Moscow this month for meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as well as other Russian officials.

Asharq Al-Awsat cited a source in the Russian capital, presumably from Hamas’ Moscow office, as saying that Haniyeh wanted to solicit Russia’s views on his “new ideas” for confronting Israel. For Moscow, the visit likely reflects a continuation of its efforts to leverage the Palestinians and other issues to pressure Israel over its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia and Israel built friendly relations in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jerusalem condemned the war, but made sure to tread carefully in order to preserve working ties with Moscow, lest Russian military forces in Syria disrupt Israel’s strategically important air operations there.

Nevertheless, bilateral tensions spiked in April after Yair Lapid, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, joined the chorus of voices worldwide accusing Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Jerusalem later provided Kyiv with some non-lethal military aid and a field hospital.

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In response, Moscow hardened its rhetoric about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories. Last month, for example, Russia’s embassy in Egypt slammed Jerusalem for accusing Russia of atrocities while allegedly showing “complete disregard and contempt for the lives of Palestinians” during an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.

In addition to its tough rhetoric, Moscow has cozied up to Hamas to signal displeasure to Israel and warn Jerusalem against harming Russian interests. Haniyeh’s visit this month followed a May 4-5 trip by another senior Hamas delegation, which traveled to Russia to discuss a flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian tensions over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Temple Mount.

That visit came as Russian-Israeli ties soured further after Lapid expressed outrage at antisemitic comments by Lavrov, while Moscow accused Jerusalem of backing what Russia paints as the “neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.” In July, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported that Russia’s ambassador to Israel had expressed dismay over Lapid’s ascension to the premiership, although both sides subsequently denied that report.

The Palestinian issue isn’t the only way that Russia has sought to pressure Israel. Moscow is also threatening, on seemingly spurious grounds, to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency. Known in Hebrew as the Sokhnut, the agency facilitates Jewish emigration to Israel and is an important symbol of post-Soviet Russian-Israeli relations. Russian officials insist the case is not political, but Jerusalem suspects otherwise. Yet even an August 9 call between Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Putin failed to resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, Russian-Israeli tensions have risen in Syria, where the Israeli Air Force routinely conducts airstrikes targeting Tehran’s efforts to supply its Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, with precision-guided munitions that threaten the Jewish state. Although it has historically acquiesced to Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Russia has grown increasingly frustrated with them in recent years, and has pushed Jerusalem to rein in its air campaign, to no avail. Russia’s powerful S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in Syria could endanger Israeli air operations against Iran, a country with which Moscow has pursued closer ties of late.

In May, a Russian-operated Syrian S-300 battery — a less capable system than the S-400, posing little threat to advanced Israeli fighter jets — fired unsuccessfully on Israeli aircraft for the first time. Russia had provided S-300s to Damascus after Syrian forces accidentally downed a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane while targeting Israeli aircraft in a 2018 incident that Moscow blamed on Israel.

Russian-Israeli tensions increased further in June, when Moscow drafted a UN Security Council resolution condemning an Israeli strike that disabled the Damascus airport, which Iran was reportedly using to smuggle weapons.

Moscow likely has little appetite for outright conflict with Israel, particularly when the bulk of Russia’s military is floundering in Ukraine. But there are plenty of other ways that Russia, which maintains an active intelligence presence in the Jewish state, could damage Israel’s interests. As Moscow cozies up with Hamas, Iran, and other enemies of Israel, Jerusalem — and its American allies — would do well to keep a watchful eye.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute. Ivana Stradner is an Advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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