MOSCOW (AP) – Hamas’ leader ruled out any softening of the militant Palestinian group’s hostility to Israel after high-profile talks in Moscow at which Russia called on it recognize the Jewish state and abandon violence.
Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal welcomed the outcome of the meetings Friday with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, saying at a news conference they were “good, constructive and open.” He did not give details.
But a statement from the Foreign Ministry after the meeting said that the Russian side had urged Hamas to endorse the “rejection of violence as a means of obtaining political goals,” existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements and “recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”
Mashaal in turn struck an uncompromising stance, saying the Jewish state must first withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 and allow the return of Palestinian refugees among other conditions if it wants peace. That statement, while sticking to Hamas’ tradition of ambiguity, could be significant, because Hamas in the past has called for Israel’s elimination altogether.
“If Israel officially announces its readiness to withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967, the return of Palestinian refugees, the closure of settlements, the dismantling of the dividing wall, the release of all prisoners, then our movement will take a big step toward peace,” he said at a news conference. “There can be no peace if the occupation continues.” He also ruled out any negotiations with the current Israeli government. “Yasser Arafat sat at negotiations with Israel for 10 years. The result is that Israel killed Yasser Arafat,” he said, referring to the late Palestinian leader.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Hamas promised to maintain a year-old cease-fire if Israel refrains from force. A conference of Palestinian factions in Cairo last year nailed down a cease-fire by Hamas and other militants.
Since winning parliamentary elections in January, Hamas has repeatedly said it would be willing to continue the informal truce if Israel reciprocates.
Lavrov was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency that Hamas was ready to honor all the agreements the Palestinian administration had undertaken as part of the Middle East peace process if Israel made steps to meet it halfway. He said Russia and Hamas had also agreed to pursue contacts.
“I won’t give overly optimistic forecasts but this is a step in the right direction,” he was quoted as saying. He cautioned, however, that “there is a long way to go to resume the peace process.”
Russia’s invitation to Hamas, extended by President Vladimir Putin, was the first crack in an international front against the group, which has sent dozens of suicide bombers to Israel.
It provoked anger in Israel and surprise among the other members of the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators, the United States, the European Union and United Nations, which had agreed to withhold international recognition from the radical Islamic movement until it moderated its stance.
Hamas’ election victory prompted threats from the U.S. and the EU to cut off US$1 billion (¤830 million) in aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
Lavrov said the Hamas leadership had agreed to allow international officials to monitor their budget funding, according to Interfax and RIA-Novosti.
“They are ready to create a mechanism of international oversight,” Lavrov was quoted as saying. No further details were provided.
Ahead of the four-hour talks with the Hamas delegation, Lavrov warned that the group must become a political movement whose militant wing could be subsumed into the recognized Palestinian “security structures.” Lavrov used careful language in his meeting with The Associated Press and several U.S. media outlets, but the transformation he envisioned would mark the end of Hamas as what the EU, U.S. and Israel view as a terrorist group.
“I don’t think Hamas would have any serious future if Hamas doesn’t change,” he said.
Lavrov said Russia understood the change would take time, and compared it to the peace process in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army gradually was compelled to disarm and embrace a political process in which the front stage was occupied by Sinn Fein, its political wing.
Hamas needs “to reassess its new role, for which maybe it wasn’t ready when the elections took place,” Lavrov said, referring to the January vote in which Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. “It will be a process, hopefully not as long as the process in Great Britain regarding Northern Ireland.”
But the difficulties of achieving change were illustrated when Mashaal declared upon arrival that the group had no intention of discussing a recognition of Israel, one of the key demands set by the international community and by Russia itself.
“The issue of recognition (of Israel) is a decided issue,” Mashaal said. “We don’t intend to recognize Israel.”
Israel’s acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted that the international community must maintain a united front against Hamas and said Russia has promised to limit its contacts with Hamas in the future.
In an apparent attempt to avoid damaging relations with Israel further, Putin decided against personally meeting the Palestinian delegation, which will only have a sightseeing tour of the Kremlin on Sunday.