Pulling away from an agreed US and European policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that he was considering inviting the newly victorious leaders of the radical Palestinian Islamic group Hamas to Moscow to discuss solutions to the conflict in the Middle East.
He spoke during a day of chaos and violence in the Gaza Strip, where three armed Palestinians were killed as they attacked Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen kidnapped an Egyptian diplomat.
Speaking at a joint news conference in Madrid with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Putin rejected claims that Russia should join with the EU and the US in declaring Hamas, which won the Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 25, a terrorist organization.
"I am profoundly convinced that burning bridges in politics is the easiest thing to do, but it has no perspective, it has no future," he said. "Preserving our contacts with Hamas, we are willing in the near future to invite the authorities of Hamas to Moscow to carry out talks."
Hamas responded favorably to the offer on Thursday.
"If we receive an official invitation to visit Russia, we will visit Russia," said Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader, according to a report from Gaza City.
not with the program
But Israeli officials said Putin's offer conflicted with the ground rules for negotiations that Russia signed on to at a meeting in London last month of the so-called quartet on the Middle East, which also includes the US, the EU and the UN. Those called on Hamas to renounce violence, disarm militias, recognize Israel and respect previous agreements with it, and implied that international aid would be cut off if changes were not made.
In New York, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, warned that any weakness in dealing with Hamas would "legitimize terror," according to the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman.
At a lunch meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the ambassadors of all five Security Council permanent members, Livni said, "Any show of weakness or hesitation on the part of any country and especially a member of the Security Council would only act to legitimize terror and give Hamas a feeling that maybe the international community was weakening," Gillerman reported.
A senior State Department official said that the administration was surprised and irritated by Putin's remarks, but that Russia had assured the US that there would not be any senior-level contacts with Hamas. Asked about Putin's statement, the official said, "Frankly, it doesn't help."
A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mikhail Kamynin, said Russia would adhere to the approach agreed upon in London. Later on Thursday, Russia's special Middle East envoy, Aleksandr Kalugin, said Moscow hoped to bring Hamas "up to international requirements" and draw it into dialogue with Israel.
While Putin seemed to catch the Bush administration and others by surprise, it was not the first time he had voiced such an opinion. In a news conference late last month, after the Palestinian elections, he said Russia had "never regarded Hamas as a terrorist organization."
Meanwhile, before dawn on Thursday, Israeli soldiers killed two armed Palestinians who attacked the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border, the military said. Israel has been permitting 5,000 Palestinian workers to commute to Israel each day through the crossing, and virtually all pass through Erez.
About half of the workers had gone through Erez by 4am when the flood of laborers suddenly stopped, Israeli officials said. Israel security officers called their Palestinian counterparts, but did not receive a coherent explanation, they said.
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