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Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to meet with Hamas threw a monkey wrench into the Quartet's thus far united front against any dealings with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, barring recognition of Israel's right to exist, a pledge of nonviolence and acceptance of all previous PA undertakings.
Putin not only declared that he would invite Hamas leaders to Moscow, but insisted that Hamas isn't a terrorist organization, again in incontrovertible contradiction to the position of the Quartet (the US, Russia, the EU and the UN).
Putin, who argued that he would seek to prevail on Hamas representatives to accept Israel, is no novice. He knows that rather than soften Hamas, his readiness to enter a substantive dialogue with its leaders greatly reduces the pressure to embark on the transformation that the international community has been demanding. Putin has recklessly made an already very bad situation significantly worse by cozying up to some of the worst villains in the global terrorist conflict, in which Russia itself has sustained agonizing blows.
Conventional wisdom ascribes Putin's obstructionism to aspirations to continue playing the role of a superpower even after the demise of the Soviet Union, and promote a foreign policy not only independent of Washington but even opposed to it.
Hamas terrorists aren't Putin's only odious bedfellows. His regime has been a major accomplice in the Iranian nuclear and missile programs. Russia continues to transfer sophisticated technology to Iran, despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's genocidal threats against Israel and his open denial of the Holocaust.
There is every reason for someone like Putin, who seeks to be counted as a bona fide member of the club of democratic statesmen, to avoid the company of the Axis of Evil's most unsavory mainstay. Yet he both fraternizes with Teheran and stymies America's attempts to refer Iran to the UN Security Council and impose meaningful sanctions upon it.
In similar vein, a year ago Putin announced plans to sell Syria shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weaponry - this despite the fact that Syria remains top of the short list of rogue states sponsoring terrorism.
Throwing matches willfully into the Mideast's tinderbox, Putin's Russia presents itself as the unscrupulous spin-off of its Soviet antecedent. It seems as bent on spreading its influence in the Arab world as was the defunct USSR and, appallingly, with some of the same disregard for Israel's most basic existential concerns.
Israel has been loath to admit this. It has wanted to treat post-communist Moscow as a newfound friend. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was even said to have a particular rapport with Putin, who made a warmly received state visit here last year.
The Quartet, accepted by Israel as the international overseer of regional peace efforts, is being subverted from within. Israel needs to find the means to impress upon Moscow the seriousness of this action, and to insist that the Quartet's other members do likewise.
There is a range of diplomatic tools for Israel to consider - including, but not limited to, the recalling of our ambassador to Moscow for consultations, demanding the withdrawal of the Russian advisers who entered the Gaza Strip over Israeli objections and insisting on a full accounting of the Russian weaponry sent to the PA.
Whichever path Israel chooses, what is crucial is that Jerusalem make plain where its vital interests lie and its inability to work with international powers that knowingly subvert those interests by empowering Hamas.
Concomitantly, Putin's dangerous strategies must caution Washington against over-reliance on the Security Council to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. With Russian impediments to this track, and Chinese as well, attention must urgently be devoted by the Bush administration to the need for a fallback "coalition of the willing" that can face up to the Iranian challenge.
The Security Council is supposed to provide the means for collective self-defense in the face of international aggressors like Iran. The Quartet is supposed to provide a responsible international framework to encourage a cessation of Palestinian terrorism and a return to the peace table.
Putin's Russia is becoming an ever-greater obstacle to both those goals. Far from carving out a new diplomatic role for itself, it must be marginalized as long as it pursues reckless and dangerous policies.