France Supports Putin's Invitation to Hamas Leaders

By REUTERS

New York Times

February 11, 2006

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - France signaled support on Friday for a Russian plan to invite Palestinian election winner Hamas to Moscow for talks despite strong protests from Israel, which wants governments to shun the Islamist militant group.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav and others said Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened peacemaking prospects if he followed through on his invitation for Hamas to visit Moscow after its victory in the January 25 parliamentary election.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned against what she called a ``slippery slope'' that could lead other nations to compromise with Hamas, whose charter calls for destruction of the Jewish state.

But Russia stood its ground and predicted other countries would sooner or later follow its lead and have contacts with Hamas. France's foreign ministry said Russia's invitation to Hamas ``can contribute toward advancing our position.''

Meir Sheetrit, an Israeli cabinet minister and political ally of interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel should consider recalling its ambassador to Russia in protest, and accused Putin of ``stabbing Israel in the back.''

Israel has ruled out negotiating with Hamas, which masterminded more than 60 suicide bombings against Israelis since 2000 but has largely adhered to a truce declared in March.

``Any weakness... will result in a negative effect -- not only for Israel, but also for the Palestinian people and for the international community,'' Livni said in an interview with The New York Sun.

Senior Israeli officials said Russia, as a member of the Quartet of major powers trying to broker Middle East peace, had a responsibility to shun Hamas.

``It's not just a slap in the face to Israel. It's a slap in the face to Western countries,'' said one Israeli official.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government was ``waiting for an explanation'' from Russia's ambassador in Israel.

But Russian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov defended Russia's offer of talks with Hamas.

``Hamas is in power, this is a fact, and secondly, it came to power as a result of free democratic elections,'' Ivanov told reporters at a NATO-Russia meeting in Italy.

He said Moscow was not happy with all of Hamas's policies, but predicted the West had no choice but to deal with it.

``I hazard the prediction that sooner or later certain countries, including those of the Quartet, will be favorable to contacts with Hamas,'' he said. The Middle East Quartet consists of the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia.

When asked about Russia's invitation to Hamas, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau said: ``As long as we stay within the framework of the objectives and principles that we have fixed, we think that this initiative can contribute toward advancing our position.''

``We share with Russia the goal of leading Hamas toward positions that permit reaching the objective of two states living in peace and security,'' Simonneau said.

A group that represents France's Jewish community deplored the statement, calling it ``a dangerous first step on the path to the renunciation of the principles of firmess shown by the international community.''

At a meeting in London on January 30, Quartet representatives said the Palestinians risked losing international aid if Hamas did not renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh brushed aside U.S. and Israeli calls to isolate Hamas, saying: ``We are not very much worried and we are sure that sovereign countries can decide for themselves.''

In a bid to shore up international resolve, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz will travel to Cairo on Tuesday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak and other officials.

``The rise of Hamas is not just a local problem for Israel, but a strategic threat for all states that seek peace in the middle east,'' a Mofaz spokeswoman said.