Netanyahu warns of acceptance of global terrorism; France backs invitation.
By HERB KEINON
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday to send a clear, strong message in any meetings with Hamas officials that the terror group must stop terror attacks on Israel.
In response, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, Russian officials offered assurances that "they will send this very clear, strong signal" adopted by Russia along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union in a joint statement approved in response to Hamas' strong showing in Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu wrote a letter on Friday to Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting he retract his invitation of Hamas leaders to come to Moscow in order to talk with Russian officials.
In his letter, Netanyahu wrote that Hamas was a terrorist organization whose hands are covered with the blood of innocents from many countries, and which has established the destruction of the State of Israel as its prime objective. He protested that by inviting Hamas's leaders to Moscow, the Russians are providing them with legitimacy.
Inviting the terrorist organization to the Kremlin would precipitate a wave of acceptance of Islamic terrorism throughout the world - a problem which threatens all of humanity, according to Netanyahu.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, during her visit to the United States, also warned against international recognition of Hamas in a New York Sun interview published Friday morning.
According to Livni, there was a "slippery slope" effect caused by the tendency of some international actors to compromise with Hamas. Any sign of weakness in dealing with Hamas, she added, would lead to "a negative effect - not only for Israel, but also for the Palestinian people and for the international community."
Putin, in a joint press conference in Madrid with Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said Thursday that Russia did not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and urged the global community to work with a Hamas-led Palestinian government.
"Hamas has arrived at the doors of power through legitimate elections," Putin said. "We must respect the Palestinian people and we have to look for solutions for the Palestinian people, for the international community, and also for Israel. Contacts with Hamas must continue."
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Friday reiterated his president's invitation, saying that Hamas won the democratic elections. He predicted that many other countries would follow Russia's lead.
Indeed, France expressed support on Friday for the Russian initiative.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said that although the invitation was offered by Russia without consulting the other members of the Quarter, the move did not contradict their values and goals regarding the Middle East.
The French representative expressed his belief that talks between Russia and Hamas may serve to advance the Quartet's goals of establishing two nations [Israel and Palestine] living side-by-side in peace and security, Israel Radio reported.
As Israeli-Russian relations stood at the precipice of the most serious crisis in years, the United States also took the opportunity to remind Russia that it was expected to stand firm against the organization's terror tactics.
On the other hand, the US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reminded Russia that it was on record condemning the violent tenets of the Hamas.
"They did so as a member of the Quartet in public to Hamas, and if there are any future meetings between Russian officials and Hamas officials, we would expect that they would deliver that same clear, strong message."
The US ambassador in Russia, William J. Burns, has requested clarification of the message Putin intends to give to the Hamas officials, McCormack said.
"Certainly, we are not going to have any contact with a terrorist organization. But as for each state, they are going to have to make that sovereign decision," McCormack said in Washington.
He rejected the notion that Putin's remarks undermine the unity or power of the Quartet. The group's proposal for resuming peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has languished for years.
Israeli officials also responded with anger and surprise to the Russian position.
"You can't say you are a friend of Israel, that you are in favor of peace in the Middle East, and at the same time give Hamas a clean bill of health," one senior Israeli government official said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni passed on Israel's position to the Russians at a meeting on Thursday night in New York with the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, the US, Great Britain, France and China.
Putin said Russia would invite Hamas representatives to participate in talks in the future. Putin's remarks come less than two weeks after Russia signed off on a Quartet statement conditioning international support to the PA on the new government's "commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap."
Hamas accepts none of these terms.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev responded to Putin's remarks by saying that "Israel supports the Quartet decision, of which Russia was a party to, that there should be no political dialogue with Hamas until Hamas recognizes Israel, abandons terrorism, and accepts the signed agreements."
One senior government official said that the Russians needed to decide whether or not they were a constructive member of the Quartet. "They can't have it both ways," he said. The official also asked why when innocents are blown up by Chechens it constitutes "terrorism," but when the same thing happens in Jerusalem "the Russians start to make excuses."
"Is what is forbidden for Chechens permissible for Palestinians," the official asked. "Or is it in fact their opinion that Russian blood is more important than Israeli blood?"
Government officials expressed concern that Russia's breaking off from the international consensus regarding Hamas may make it easier for other countries to do the same.
In fact, Zapatero said at the press conference, "The role of the Russian federation, of President Putin, is going to be decisive to all that affects the dialogue and the peace prospects in the Middle East following the Palestinian electionsâ€¦"
One senior diplomatic official said that the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council election had provided the Russians with an opportunity both to differentiate themselves from US Middle East policy, and also to move into a more central role in the region. Russia's stature in the Arab world would rise considerably, the official said, if everyone else boycotted Hamas, but Moscow was willing to deal with them.
The official said that in addition to Israel lodging protests to Moscow through diplomatic channels, there would also be attempts to harness US pressure on Moscow as well.
Putin's comments came just a day after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Livni during talks in Washington that the US backed Israel's conditions for dealing with Hamas, and that it was determined to ensure that Europe remained firmly behind those conditions as well.
One official said that whereas Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a good personal relationship with Putin, and open lines of communications with him, that same positive dynamic did not exist with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, making things more difficult this time than they were during the last hiccup in Russian-Israeli relations - when Russia decided to sell sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus last year.
AP contributed to this report.
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