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Premier Romano Prodi telephoned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday after his comments about having a dialogue with Hamas drew sharp criticism from Israel and praise from the Islamist group.
Prodi appeared to backtrack on his position during the call, stressing that Hamas must fulfill conditions set out by the Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators before its international isolation ends: recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and accept existing agreements.
Italian diplomats said Prodi told Olmert that Italy's actions were designed to persuade Hamas to fulfill the conditions. A statement from Olmert's office said that during the call "the Italian prime minister said his position was and remains that there should be no contacts with Hamas unless Hamas carries out the three Quartet conditions in full."
Prodi made the original comments over the weekend in a question-and-answer session with Israeli and Palestinian youths attending a camp in Castiglione della Pescaia, on the Tuscan coast, where the premier is vacationing.
"Hamas exists," the premier said, speaking in English. He said it was a complex organization that needed help to evolve, and that Italy wanted to see Israelis and Palestinians living together in peace.
"Clearly, we must push dialogue so that this happens," he was quoted as saying by the Italian agencies ANSA and Apcom. "One should not refuse dialogue with anyone."
The Foreign Ministry criticized the comments, saying progress had been made in recent months precisely because Hamas had been isolated.
"Those calling for bringing Hamas back into the equation are making a mistake. Bringing Hamas back in the equation will only cripple the process of reconciliation and will halt the current positive momentum," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Hamas praised Prodi's comments, saying it was open for dialogue with the West.
"Such a statement by Prodi and other Western officials reflects the West's understanding that the policy of ignoring Hamas has failed," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Prodi's position set off a minor political storm in Italy, with opposition lawmakers saying the premier was changing policy and promoting negotiations with a group the European Union has designated a terrorist organization. The center-right opposition demanded he appear in Parliament.
Prodi's spokesman, Silvio Sircana, issued a statement saying there was no change in policy, but that closing dialogue with Hamas could lead to a radicalization of the situation.
"Prodi said that it's necessary to leave open a channel of dialogue, which is different than negotiations," which are being carried out by the principal leaders and the Quartet with the full support of Italy, Sircana said.