- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

JERUSALEM — Top Israeli officials yesterday attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invite Hamas militants to Moscow following their victory in Palestinian elections, with one Israeli Cabinet minister accusing the Russian leader of “stabbing Israel in the back.”

The invitation — Russia’s latest attempt to assert itself in the Middle East diplomatic picture — represented a break with the U.S. and European refusal to deal with Hamas until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

Mr. Putin had angered Israel a day earlier by saying he did not consider Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks, to be a terrorist group.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to send a clear, strong message in any meetings with Hamas officials that the militant group must stop terror attacks on Israel.

Despite the controversy, France expressed hope the Russian overture could help lead Hamas toward acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau insisted the Palestinian militant group must renounce violence and recognize Israel.

In an interview, Israeli Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit of the centrist Kadima Party called Mr. Putin’s remarks an “international scandal” that amounted to “stabbing Israel in the back.” His comments were echoed by other senior Israeli politicians.

Russia is part of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators, along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. The Quartet is the main sponsor of the “road map” peace plan, which calls on the Palestinians to disarm militant groups like Hamas as a step toward creating an independent state.

“Russia should be removed from any negotiations in the Middle East,” said Mr. Sheetrit, a close ally of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in Israeli elections scheduled for March.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav said Mr. Putin threatened the peace process if he followed through on his invitation, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned against what she called a “slippery slope” that could lead other nations to compromise with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

But Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, welcomed the Russian initiative. “We think countries in power can decide for themselves what kinds of positions and policies they can take,” he said.

Mr. Haniyeh said Hamas would accept the invitation, though a date for a visit has not been set.

Hamas has so far rejected calls to moderate its violent ideology, despite threats from Europe and the U.S. that tens of millions of dollars of vital aid could be in jeopardy.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday his country was not happy with Hamas’ ideology, but the group was elected in a democratic election.

“Hamas is in power. This is a fact,” Mr. Ivanov told reporters at a meeting with NATO defense ministers in Taormina, Sicily. “Sometime in the future, many leading states will start supporting Hamas and have some contacts.”

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