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(photo credit: AP)
Three months after he implored Israel, in an interview to The Jerusalem Post, to urgently negotiate with Hamas - directly or through a third party - for a Gaza cease-fire, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday that France has been holding informal contacts with Hamas and that the group is proving "more flexible than before."
Hamas confirmed the contacts and said France was not the only European country to seek it out recently for talks.
Kouchner, speaking on Europe-1 Radio, confirmed a report in the daily newspaper Le Figaro, which quoted a retired diplomat as saying he met with leaders of Hamas a month ago.
The French stance appears to undermine a longstanding American and European commitment not to talk with Hamas unless it recognizes Israel, renounces terrorism and accepts previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hamas is formally considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.
Kouchner said France has had contacts with Hamas leaders "for several months." But he said France was not engaged in formal negotiations with the group. "These are not relations, they are contacts. We must be able to talk if we want to play a role," he said.
The French foreign minister plans to make a three-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority this week.
In late June, during an official visit to Israel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy "will go to Palestine for several hours," Kouchner added. He said Sarkozy will not meet with Hamas.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel said that Israel knew about the French contacts with Hamas and raised the issue with Paris "at the highest levels." Mekel said the French gave Israel assurances that this did not represent "a change in France's position regarding Hamas" and that Paris continued to adhere to the Quartet's three conditions for dialogue with Hamas.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will be meeting Kouchner on Thursday, and Mekel said this will be an opportunity for Israel to hear France's position on the matter, and vice versa.
The French meeting, and acknowledgment of it, comes at a time of "restlessness" in Europe regarding the policy toward Hamas, and a growing feeling that the policy of isolating Hamas has not weakened the organization, but in fact might have had the opposite effect, while leading to a serious humanitarian crisis in the area.
Earlier this month the EU's leading diplomat to Israel and its leading diplomatic official to the Palestinian Authority said the international community's efforts at trying to weaken Hamas have failed and should be reevaluated.
"The policy implemented in the last year [toward the Gaza Strip] aimed at strengthening people [through providing direct economic assistance and humanitarian aid], and weakening Hamas... is having the opposite effect," said Ramiro CibriÃ¡n-Uzal, the EU's ambassador to Israel. "We need to think about alternative policies, because this has not been successful. This is important to recognize."
Diplomatic sources said that the French meeting with Hamas was a way to look for alternative policies. The sources said the French were taking the lead on the issue because France will assume the rotating presidency of the EU from Slovenia on July 1.
Kouchner, during his last visit in mid-February, told the Post he knew Israel was concerned that Hamas would use any cease-fire period to build up and improve its weaponry. But Israel had "to take a chance..., to take a risk," he said. Israel should use its allies and its friends, the French included, to reach a cease-fire, he said.
Kouchner went on: "We need negotiation. The word is awful. I don't want to use the word negotiation. But [we need] some sort of agreement: Hamas must stop firing, targeting Israel with Kassams, and [the] Israeli people must stop answering' [retaliating]."
Weeks earlier, in Washington, Kouchner had declared that it was "not the moment" for the West to be talking to Hamas. But when asked by the Post whether he was suggesting Israel should now talk to Gaza's Islamist government, he said: "It has been done already. They [the Israelis] are talking. They are not talking directly, apparently, but through Egypt, on [the issue of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl.] Gilad Schalit. You have to free Gilad Schalit... I don't ask them to talk directly to Hamas. It's up to them."
In Gaza Monday, a Hamas spokesman confirmed that his group had contacts with France - and, beyond that, "communications with many European officials."
"It reflects Europe's awareness that it made a mistake in boycotting Hamas," said the spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.
He would not name the other countries that have been in contact with Hamas. The talks, he said, were "about exploring Hamas's positions on political issues." There were no discussions about opening formal diplomatic relations, he said.
Kouchner said Monday the talks were not held on a regular basis, but provided no other details.
But a former ambassador to Iraq, Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, was quoted by Le Figaro as saying he met a month ago in Gaza with Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas strongman, and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister. De la Messuziere is also a former head of the Middle East division in the French Foreign Ministry.
France's Foreign Ministry said later that de la Messuziere made the trip on "an individual basis" but that ministry officials had been informed.
The Hamas leaders "assured [me] that they were ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, which amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel," the retired diplomat was quoted as saying.
"They said they were ready to stop suicide attacks, and what surprised me is that the Islamist leaders recognize the legitimacy of [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas," de la Messuziere was quoted as saying.
Kouchner, in the radio interview, said Hamas was "more flexible than before" but for the moment does not recognize the State of Israel.