- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

MOSCOW — The leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas rejected pressure to soften hostility to Israel yesterday, saying the Jewish state must first withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 and allow refugees to return if it wants peace.

Embarking on the group’s highest-profile diplomatic mission ever, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal said that if Israel took these steps, “our movement will have taken a big step toward 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.

Mr. Mashaal also welcomed the outcome of high-level talks with Russian officials, who had said before the meetings that they would pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon violence.

The talks were “good, constructive and open,” Mr. Mashaal said after meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Russian officials.

Mr. Lavrov was quoted as saying 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.

“I won’t give overly optimistic forecasts, but this is a step in the right direction,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Mr. Lavrov as saying.

President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to Hamas was the first crack in an international front against the group, which won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament in January.

The invitation 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 the United Nations, which had agreed to withhold international recognition from the radical Islamic movement until it moderated its stance.

Mr. Mashaal struck an uncompromising stance.

“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. The Israelis have rejected such conditions.

Ahead of yesterday’s talks, Mr. Lavrov warned Hamas must become an essentially political movement whose militant wing could be subsumed into the recognized Palestinian “security structures.”

“I don’t think Hamas would have any serious future if Hamas doesn’t change,” he said.

Mr. Lavrov compared the change 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.

But the difficulties of achieving change were illustrated yesterday, when Mr. Mashaal declared upon arrival that the group had no intention of discussing a recognition of Israel.

“The issue of recognition [of Israel] is a decided issue,” Mr. Mashaal said. “We don’t intend to recognize Israel.”

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