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Putin's Realpolitik & Olmert's Dilemma

Senior Israeli Official: 'Israel Must Act Decisively In Reaction To Russia's Outrageous Invitation to Hamas'

Israeli Sources: 'President Putin Is Playing Realpolitik At Israel's Expense'

Olmert's Handling Of Crisis Could Affect His Standing In Current Election Campaign

President Putin

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Israeli government are now facing a major dilemma after Russian President Vladimir Putin officially invited Hamas leaders to visit Moscow. Although the terror organization still vows to annihilate Israel, Putin says the Palestinians elected it to power in a democratic election and Hamas should be treated accordingly. Israeli leaders and the country at large are furious at what is being called 'Russia's stab in the back'; however Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must now block any international legitimizing of Hamas without causing a major rift with President Putin.

'Israel is considering various diplomatic steps to cope with Russia's outrageous invitation for Hamas to visit Moscow this month'. That's the reaction of a senior Israeli official who adds that no decisions have been adopted yet. Jerusalem sources say the Russian move to invite a terror group that vows to annihilate Israel, not only damages the Jewish state but also the peace process. The Israeli cabinet is set to decide how to react to President Putin's bombshell at its weekly cabinet session on Sunday. There is no question the Russian invitation has enraged Israeli politicians across the political spectrum as well as the population at large. The Dilemma: Diplomatic sources say Israel could recall her ambassador to Moscow for consultations as a sign of protest.

However, the sources add this would be considered to be a drastic move at this stage and the Russian might follow suit. This would further deepen the crisis between Jerusalem and Moscow. Russian diplomats have been trying to soothe the harsh reaction by saying that Russian leaders will impress upon Hamas that they must recognize Israel and halt the terrorism. Jerusalem is not buying the Russian explanation and Moscow has put Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the spot. Coming in the midst of an election campaign, Israeli voters will be watching Olmert's every move and judge how he copes with the crisis. Olmert is now being tested in the international arena after most Israelis believe 'Russia has stabbed Israel in the back'. Opposition's Reaction: Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu sent off an urgent protest to Putin calling on him to reconsider the Hamas invitation. Netanyahu rebutted Putin's argument about Hamas being democratically elected. He noted that Chechnyan leaders were also elected democratically but Moscow is certainly not willing to negotiate with them. And of course this question is being asked by Israelis: 'How would Moscow react if Israel or the U.S. extended a similar invitation to the leaders of the Chechnyan rebellion against Russia. Netanyahu and his Likud party also blame Olmert for opening the door by agreeing to transfer over $50 million in taxes and customs to the Palestinian Authority after the Hamas election victory. However, it is hard to imagine that a world power such as Russia takes such a bizarre foreign policy decision on the basis of the Israeli government's decision to transfer tax money to the Palestinian Authority. In any case, if Olmert does not act decisively he could lose credibility with Israeli voters on March 28th.

On the international level, France is already about to follow the Russian line on Hamas and the Israeli government must act swiftly or the international floodgates could open wide on legitimizing Hamas. With the Iranian nuclear issue coming up soon in the U.N. Security Council, does President Putin have any more surprises up his sleeve? Russia has a big financial interest in Iran and is building the Iranian nuclear reactor at Buhsher. Putin's Realpolitik: The Russian President has signaled that he too is a player to be reckoned with in the Middle East. It was no coincidence that he extended his visit to Hamas at the time Israeli Foreign Minister Zippy Livni was in Washington discussing the Hamas election victory with President Bush and Secretary of State Rice. The consternation in Washington is nearly as great as that in Jerusalem. The Bush administration has been spearheading the international campaign against Islamist terrorism in what is developing into a real 'clash of civilizations'. Russia, a key country, is apparently having second thoughts.

Moreover, Russia is a member of the 'Quartet' that includes the U.S., the European Union and the U.N. They sponsor the Roadmap peace process which has been derailed by the Hamas victory. By playing solo on Hamas, Russia has in effect disqualified itself in Israeli eyes when it comes to playing a bona fide role in the process. Putin's move in pandering to Hamas has some Israeli analysts scratching their heads. If the Russian president wants to challenge America's hegemony and boost his prestige in the Arab world, he may be going about it the wrong way. Countries like Egypt (whose official was just abducted in the Gaza Strip), Jordan and even Syria were shocked by the Hamas victory. Former Syrian President Hafez massacred more than twenty- thousand Muslim Brothers because they threatened to overthrow his regime. After the horrific attacks by Chechnyan terrorists in Russia last year, Putin himself declared that all nations must stand united in the global war against terrorism. The fact is that Moscow differentiates between Palestinian and Chechnyan terrorists. On a visit to Israel, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov contended that Chechnya was an internal Russian issue whereas the Israeli- Palestinian conflict was being waged by two different entities. But are the Russians aware that official Hamas posters express support for the Chechnyan cause and that Palestine and Chechnya ' are one and the same'? Israel's Channel One TV has screened such authentic Hamas placards with these very same slogans. Moreover, Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fanatic Islamist group with ties to the World Jihad and Al Qaeda movement. As one Israeli source says: "By 'laundering' Hamas, Putin is severely damaging the international campaign against terrorism'.

David Essing

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