Vladimir Putin's deplorable invitation to Hamas leaders to meet in the Kremlin is reminiscent of the bleak days of the Soviet Union, when Moscow embraced the PLO and Yasser Arafat, when the Palestinian Covenant called for the destruction of the State of Israel. At the height of the Cold War about 35 years ago, the United States and Western Europe boycotted the PLO, while the Soviet Union provided it with arms, intelligence, explosives and military training. Now it is Hamas that has a covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.
Consequently, the cynical attempt by the Russian foreign ministry to justify Putin's step by explaining that it will force Hamas to discontinue its terror activities and recognize Israel is no more than lip service. Putin is apparently willing to exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to reinstate Russia as a major player in the Middle East - even if it comes at the expense of Israel.
Perhaps Israel should not have been surprised. Reports have been coming from Russia for some time now regarding Putin's complete policy turnabout. There are about 20 million Muslims in Russia, and Putin has been trying to mollify the Muslim communities.
"The Russian people is multi-ethnic," says Putin, "and that is the secret of its strength." At the same time, Putin continues to fight Chechen terror and its supporters, just as Israel is battling Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades - and all other Palestinian terror organizations.
Putin has continued Boris Yeltsin's refusal to compromise with the Chechens and grant them independence - due to Russia's supreme economic interests. Chechnya, it so happens, is a crucial crossroads for the passage of Russia's pipelines from its rich oil wells, which have brought it considerable income over the years. That is why the Kremlin is willing to fight the Chechens to the death.
Of the approximately 4.5 million Chechens, only about half a million have remained where they were. The rest have been driven out and dispersed, something democratic Israel does not even dare to consider doing to the Palestinians, notwithstanding the suicide terror perpetrated by Hamas and its ilk, who have already murdered hundreds of Israelis and injured thousands.
PUTIN IS a cold, calculating leader. When he still served as head of Russian intelligence and foreign services, he met with then foreign minister Ariel Sharon for the first time in Moscow. It was in January 1999. Putin was seeking to strengthen cooperation between Russia and Israel in the war on extreme Islamist terror.
Sharon was accompanied on that visit by Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Meir Dagan, currently chief of the Mossad. At the time Dagan served as prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's adviser on the war against terror. Putin complained that the Chechen terrorists were being aided by reinforcements of Palestinians from Jordan, as well as by Osama bin Laden's organization, the name of which was not yet identified with international terror.
Sharon and Dagan promised - and kept their promise - to expand intelligence and all other cooperation with the Kremlin in the war on terror, in coordination with the American administration. Israel apparently contributed so much to Russia in this area that following the battle Putin waged in October 2002 in the heart of Moscow against Chechen terrorists who stormed and took over a theater, taking the audience hostage, Putin made a very emotional phone call to Sharon.
He thanked Sharon and Israel for standing at Russia's side in its war on terror. "I love you," Putin said to Sharon.
Sharon, who told me about it afterwards, did not want to go into the details and explain what Putin meant. What was clear was that a special friendship had been forged between the two leaders, which was also expressed in the historic first visit by a Russian leader to Israel's capital, Jerusalem, last year.
At the same time Sharon knew full well that, with Putin, love was one thing and his country's interests quite another. Putin could call Sharon and condemn a serious terror attack in Israel carried out by Hamas suicide terrorists and say, "You don't have to explain anything to me; I know exactly who Arafat is."
On the other hand, he could vote in the United Nations in favor of a resolution that Sharon greatly opposed. When Sharon asked Putin in Jerusalem not to sell antiaircraft missiles to Syria - Putin explained why those missiles did not represent a danger to Israel, how they served only to protect Bashar Assad's presidential palace.
And in the matter of the danger of the Iranian nuclear program, Putin is also playing both sides against the middle: Russian industries and scientists provided Iran with its nuclear power stations, ignoring the warnings of Israel and the United States in the past eight years. The Kremlin has been sending signals, as if to say there is another way to deal with Iran besides the pressure being exerted by the US in the hope of halting Iran's arming itself with nuclear weapons.
Beyond the considerable and justified concern in Israel at Putin's shattering of the international front against Hamas, a worrying global picture is taking shape: In every place that President George Bush has demonstrated a firm position - toward the terror-supporting regimes and terror organizations themselves, and toward Teheran, Damascus and Hamas - Putin has come and presented a completely opposite position.
There is a worrying method in this madness.