Putin says he will invite Hamas leaders to Moscow

By Haaretz Service

Haaretz

Shvat 12, 5766

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he would invite Hamas leaders to Moscow, opening a crack in a wall of U.S.-led opposition to dealing with the Palestinian election winner until it recognized Israel.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State David Welch said he had not yet been updated on the invitation of Hamas officials to Moscow. He noted that Russia is part of the Quartet, and the U.S. expects that all meetings and dialogue with Hamas officials be held according to decisions made by the Quartet.

Putin's decision marks a departure from the international position taken since Hamas won the Palestinian elections last month. The U.S. and Europe have refrained from contact with Hamas leaders and called on the organization to recognize Israel, quit violence, and abide by agreements the Palestinian Authority signed with Israel in the past.

Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official said in Gaza that leaders of the group, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, "would be delighted" to visit Russia if Putin tendered a formal invitation.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem there should be no talks with Hamas until it recognizes Israel's right to exist, renounces terror and accepts the Middle East peace process.

"Maintaining our contacts with Hamas, we are ready in the near future to invite the Hamas authorities to Moscow to hold talks," Putin told a news conference in the Spanish capital Madrid where he was on a visit.

Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Putin said: "We haven't considered Hamas a terrorist organization. Today we must recognize that Hamas has reached power in Palestine as a result of legitimate elections and we must respect the choice of the Palestinian people."

International Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn said Thursday he is working to ease the cash-trapped Palestinian Authority's dire financial situation, which took a turn for the worse last month after Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, swept Palestinian elections.

Western nations have threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, Israel is liable to stop transferring monthly payments needed to pay PA salaries, and Arab nations have not followed through on promises to deliver more money.

"We are looking to put together a package which will ensure the financial pressure is relieved for the coming period," Wolfensohn said after meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to discuss the shifting political map.

He did not elaborate or specify whether that period would extend to the time Hamas took power.

Wolfensohn said he did not come to set conditions for cash injections. But the group he represents already has done so.

Wolfensohn is an envoy of the Quartet that drew up the long-stalled "road map" peace plan - the U.S., UN, European Union and Russia. Last week, the Quartet pledged continued aid to Abbas's caretaker administration but warned that further aid would be at risk if Hamas wouldn't renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Western donors funnel about $900 million to the Palestinians each year, most of it designated for reconstruction projects in the impoverished Gaza Strip and West Bank.

In Cairo on Wednesday, the group's political chief, Khaled Meshal, again rebuffed international demands to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Meshal also told the state-run Qatar News Agency on Thursday that Hamas planned to ask Arab and Muslim states for political and financial support to counter threats from the West to halt Palestinian aid.

"We are confident that Arab and Muslim countries will stand by Hamas and support the Palestinian people to respond to calls for punishing them," Meshal said.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice said that international aid could not flow to Hamas unless it recognizes Israel's right to exist. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also urged the world to isolate a Hamas-led government.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said after the meeting that Wolfensohn would tour the Gulf to recruit aid.

Saudi Arabia promised $20 million and Qatar pledged $13 million in quick aid to help the PA pay January salaries to 137,000 employees, a senior Palestinian official said earlier in the month. But by Thursday, the money had not arrived.