- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

MOSCOW — Russia will meet with Hamas leaders early next month but has assured its partners in the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators that it will press the militant Palestinian group to recognize Israel and abandon the use of violence, a Western diplomat said yesterday.

“What they have stressed to us … is that their message to Hamas when this meeting takes place will be a very direct one and consistent with what the Quartet has agreed to,” said the diplomat, who has extensive experience in the Middle East.

That includes in particular, he said, “the emphasis on Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist, to accept the two-state solution, to turn away from violence [and] to accept the agreements that have previously been reached by the” Palestinian Authority.

“We’ll see what happens,” the diplomat added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said yesterday that an agreement has been reached for the arrival in early March of a delegation from Hamas, which won a surprise victory in Palestinian legislative elections last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked Western governments last week by inviting Hamas, which is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel and has been designated a terrorist organization by Washington, for talks in Moscow.

The invitation marked the first time that a leader of the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators — also made up of the United States, the United Nations and the European Union — had issued an invitation to meet with Hamas.

The Quartet is the main backer of the “road map” peace plan, which calls for step-by-step negotiations on the withdrawal of Israeli settlements, disarming militant groups such as Hamas and establishing eventual Palestinian statehood.

Israeli officials have reacted with outrage to the invitation. One official said it was equivalent to “stabbing Israel in the back.” Only France has backed the Russian move.

Yesterday, Hamas leaders met with Turkey’s foreign minister and other members of the ruling party during a surprise visit to Ankara, their first to a non-Arab capital since the Jan. 25 election.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, apparently bowing to strong Israeli and Western pressure, canceled plans to meet with the five-man delegation led by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Reuters news agency reported.

Russia, the only Quartet member that has not designated Hamas a terrorist organization, is hoping to use its unique position to bring the radical group into the peace process, the Western diplomat in Moscow said.

“The Russians like to show that they are a player in the Middle East, and I think they like also to show that they bring something distinctive to the table,” he said.

He said the move also indicates that Russia is growing more self-confident on the international stage. The nation is flush with oil money and is the current president of the Group of Eight industrial nations.

“This isn’t the Russia it was in the mid-‘90s, which was flat on its back economically. People are feeling much more self-assured,” he said.

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