Russia, Hamas agree in principle to meet, may discuss arms deal

By Yoav Stern, Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Shvat 19, 5766

While Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshaal was holding talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Thursday, Russia announced it had agreed in principle on a meeting with Hamas officials in Moscow in early March.

A top Russian military officer also said Thursday that Russia could decide on weapons deliveries to the Palestinians after the talks with Hamas leaders, the Interfax news agency reported.

"This decision must be made with the new Palestinian leadership," the army's chief of the general staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, was quoted as saying.

He said that two helicopters expected to be delivered to the Palestinians would be unarmed and were intended for transporting the territory's leaders.

"Armored equipment is also intended for stabilizing the situation," Interfax quoted Baluyevsky as saying. The Palestinian Authority plans to buy two Mi-17 transport helicopters and 50 armored personnel carriers, Interfax said.

Turkish FM pressures Hamas
Turkish Foreign Minister Abudullah Gul said on Thursday that he had clarified to Hamas that Turkey stood firmly behind the Middle East Quartet's condition to withhold aid from a Hamas-led Palestinian government unless the Islamist group renounces violence and abandons its commitment to Israel's destruction.

A Hamas delegation headed by the group's political chief, Khaled Meshaal, arrived in Turkey Thursday for unexpected talks. This was the first visit by senior members of the militant Islamist organization to a non-Arab country since it won a January 25 election.

An official in Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan office said the prime minister would not meet Hamas leaders during their visit to Ankara.

"It is out of the question that the prime minister hold talks with the Hamas delegation," the official told reporters.

Foreign Minister Tzipi livni said her Turkish counterpart had told her in advance that a Hamas delegation would be arriving in Turkey for talks.

In an interview to Israel Radio, Livni attempted to downplay the importance of the meeting, saying that Israel's conditions for ties with a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas were not subject to negotiations.

Livni said, nevertheless, that Israel was opposed to Turkey's meeting Hamas.

The United States and the European Union, which Turkey aims to join, both list Hamas as a terrorist organization. They have threatened to cut off aid to any Palestinian government run by Hamas unless the group adheres to the quartet's conditions.

Turkish government sources said the delegation that arrived on Thursday led by Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal would hold talks with Foreign Ministry officials including Deputy Under-Secretary Ahmet Uzumcu and also with members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The sources said the AKP, not the Foreign Ministry, had invited Hamas to Turkey, a Muslim but secular country which has good relations with Israel, Hamas's sworn enemy, as well as with the Palestinians.

No other details about Hamas's program were immediately available. It was not clear whether they would meet Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan or other government ministers.

Erdogan, who has roots in political Islam, has said the international community should be ready to work with Hamas after the Palestinian people voted for them in a fair election.

But Ankara has also urged Hamas to renounce violence and work with Israel toward a Middle East peace settlement.

A Hamas official in Gaza said on Thursday the group had received an official invitation for talks in Russia.

Khalil Abu Laila said the invitation was sent to Meshaal, who lives in exile, and that a date for the visit would be agreed later.

The Hamas trip to Turkey - like its planned visit to Moscow - is likely to upset Ankara's NATO ally, the United States, as well as Israel because it challenges their campaign to isolate the group to force it give up violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

The Russian initiative has seemed to open a crack in the Quartet of Middle East mediators - including the United Nations, European Union and Washington.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow agreed that Hamas must commit to seeking peace with Israel to win international acceptance.

"We will work toward Hamas accepting the Quartet's positions. This is not just the Quartet's opinion but also that of the majority of nations, including Arab nations," he said after talks with EU leaders in Vienna.