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The reflexive reaction of many Israelis to Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to break ranks with the West and invite Hamas to Moscow was that the Russians, being Russian, were reverting to the old Soviet anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, patterns.
What other than anti-Semitism could explain the hypocritical difference Moscow made between Chechen attacks on Russian citizens, which the Kremlin calls terrorism, and Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, which Putin now seemed hell-bent on whitewashing?
But Putin is not Leonid Brezhnev, most Israeli officials who deal with Moscow will tell you. He is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic.
He is, however, keen on seeing US failure, and he does want to reassert Russia's position as a superpower.
Putin's invitation to Hamas Thursday didn't come out of the blue. A week earlier at a mammoth press conference in the Kremlin, he made it clear that Moscow did not view Hamas the same way the US and Europe did.
His answer to a question about Hamas was extremely telling. Hamas's victory, he said, "is a big setback, an important setback for American efforts in the Middle East. A very serious setback."
And an American setback in the Middle East is good for Russia; it provides Russia with an opportunity.
Putin's invitation to Hamas was not a jab at Israel, although we will definitely feel the sting, as much as it was a swipe at US regional policies. Putin has identified a place where Russia can play a key position. If everyone else is boycotting Hamas and Russia talks with it, then Russia has just won itself a starring role.
Listen to what Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said at the press conference with Putin at which he extended the invitation.
Regarding the Middle East, Zapatero said, "We need to bolster the role of Moscow and President Putin in order to inject this peace process with new strength."
Listen also to Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, who was quoted by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti as saying on Al-Jezeera Friday that "the failure of US policies in the region has left a vacuum and this vacuum should be filled by other states. We believe that Russia can do this. We know the Palestinian issue is the key to all other problems of the Middle East. By taking the initiative on the Palestinian issue, Russia will win in the entire Middle Eastern region."
This is exactly what Putin wants: recognition of Russia's role as a key player in the Middle East, not just a US side-kick that blindly follows Washington's positions.
Putin is constantly looking for niches for Russia to squeeze in and prove that it is just as big on the world's stage as the US and Europe. Its sale of state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missiles to Syria last year, over both Israeli and US objections, was a similar attempt to find such a niche.
This was a way to increase Russia's influence in the Arab world in a way Moscow well knows how - through arms sales - and also a way to send a message to the world that it will not accept dictates from the US.
Russia also tried a similar exercise recently regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. After US and European efforts to strike some kind of deal with the Iranians failed, the Russians stepped in with the idea of enriching the Iranian uranium on Russian soil to provide some kind of safeguard against it being used for nuclear weapons.
It was an attempt by the Russians to come in at the end of a failed process and "save the day," acting like the superpower Moscow once was. Never mind that the effort failed, it was still indicative of the new Russian approach: look for US failures and try to exploit them.
The recent exercise with Hamas is the latest example of this pattern. Israel suffers the consequence of this policy, but is not necessarily the target.
Small consolation, but still a significant difference from the days of the Soviets.
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