A meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and supporters of deposed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan in Moscow last week has raised eyebrows in Ramallah, where some Palestinian officials said they were surprised by the encounter.
According to websites affiliated with Dahlan, the high-ranking delegation invited to Moscow was headed by Samir al-Mashharawi, one of the founders of Dahlan’s Fatah Democratic Reform group.
Mashharawi, a senior Fatah official from the Gaza Strip, was accompanied by three other Dahlan loyalists: Ja’far Hudaib, Majed Abu Shamala and Mahmoud Issa al-Linou, secretary-general of Fatah in Lebanon.
Sources close to Dahlan, who is based in the United Arab Emirates, said the delegation visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The sources said that the talks focused on “restoring Palestinian national unity in light of the preparations for the Palestinian general elections.”
They said that the Russian diplomat “stressed the importance of ending the Palestinian division to achieve the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom and ending the occupation.”
The Russian deputy foreign minister also “stressed the importance of the unity of the Fatah faction ahead of the Palestinian general elections, the sources added.
Dahlan, an archrival of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has not said whether he plans to run for the presidential election, slated for July 31.
Dahlan’s supporters, however, have announced that they intend to participate in the parliamentary election, which has been set for May 22. They said that they prefer to run as part of Fatah’s official list, but will not hesitate to contest the vote in a separate list if the Fatah leadership insists on excluding Dahlan loyalists.
PA officials said that Dahlan would not be permitted to participate in the upcoming elections, because he had been convicted of financial corruption by a Palestinian court in 2016. It’s not clear whether Dahlan supporters would be permitted to participate in the parliamentary election.
PA security forces have launched a crackdown on Dahlan followers in the West Bank, accusing them of incitement and instigating unrest and instability, especially in a number of refugee camps near Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin.
A PA official in Ramallah expressed hope that the meeting between Bogdanov and the Dahlan loyalists would not be interpreted by some Palestinians as a Russian endorsement of Abbas’ political foes.
“We were surprised that the Russians invited Dahlan’s men to Moscow, especially as we are heading toward general elections,” the official said. “We were not informed in advance of the meeting. Dahlan is a foreign agent who is wanted by the Palestinian Authority.”
Another PA official said that he does not believe that the meeting in Moscow represents a change in Russia’s position toward Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.
“The Russians have long been holding talks with various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, as part of their effort to achieve Palestinian national unity,” the official said.
The official said he did not rule out the possibility that Russia would try to act as a mediator between Abbas and Dahlan.
The official also said he did not rule out the possibility that the Russian invitation to Dahlan’s supporters was held at the request of the UAE.
Dahlan reportedly serves as a special adviser to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
One day before the meeting, Bogdanov met with UAE Ambassador to Russia, Dr. Mohammed Ahmed bin Sultan Al Jaber, the official pointed out.
A veteran Fatah official, responding to the visit of the Dahlan supporters to Moscow, warned against “foreign intervention” in the internal affairs of the Palestinians in order to influence the results of the elections.
“We appreciate Russia’s efforts to achieve Palestinian national unity, but it was a mistake to invite Dahlan’s men to Moscow,” the Fatah official argued. “This could be seen by some Palestinians as a Russian endorsement of Dahlan.”
Talal al-Sharif, a supporter of Dahlan, said that the meeting in Moscow was a “strong message” to Abbas regarding the need for unity in Fatah.
Sharif predicted that other countries would follow suit and exert pressure on Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to achieve reconciliation with Dahlan ahead of the planned elections.
“If Abbas does not rush to achieve reconciliation with Dahlan, he will commit a grave mistake against Fatah,” he wrote. “If Abbas does not reunite Fatah, he will be handing power over to Hamas.”