Hamas delegates warned

On Moscow visit, Russian foreign minister prods group to accept Israel


MOSCOW --The leaders of Hamas, the radical Islamic group that won control of the Palestinian government, began a high-profile, three-day visit to Russia yesterday by praising President Vladimir V. Putin for inviting them, only to receive a pointed warning that the organization had to recognize Israel and dismantle its militias or face isolation and even irrelevancy.

Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said that Russia would convey to Hamas a position shared by the United States and other international mediators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as, he said, by "most of the Arab capitals." He said Hamas needed to transform itself into a legitimate political movement on the model of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

"I don't think Hamas would have any serious future if Hamas doesn't change," Lavrov said at a briefing for American news organizations, shortly before he met with the Hamas delegation at the Foreign Ministry.

Putin's invitation, announced last month, surprised and angered officials in Israel and the United States, which have tried to isolate Hamas after its victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections. Russia has since sought to reassure its now-and-then partners that it did not intend to diverge significantly from international efforts to resolve the conflict.

Hamas has shown little interest in changing its position. Hamas' leader, Khaled Meshal, said on arrival here that the organization did not intend to revise its refusal to recognize Israel, adding that Israel was the main obstacle to peace in the region.

After meeting with Lavrov, he reiterated Hamas' demands that Israel leave Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967, allow refugees to return to their homes, release Palestinian prisoners and tear down the security barrier that it has been building - conditions that Israel will almost certainly reject.

"In our opinion, the problem is not in the position of the Palestinian people, but in the occupation," Meshal, who lives in exile in Syria, said in televised remarks at the airport. "We are for peace in the region, which may become possible only after the end of the occupation."

The Hamas visit had all the trappings of a state visit, with the delegation coursing around a snowy Moscow under heightened security. Putin was not scheduled to meet Meshal or the other Hamas leaders, though they have been offered a tour of the Kremlin tomorrow, as well as meetings with lawmakers, diplomats, Russia's Muslim leader Ravil Gainutdin, and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksy II.

While Hamas delegations have visited Iran and Turkey since the election, the trip to Moscow was the most prominent and the first beyond the Islamic world. It has given the organization - classified by the United States as a terrorist group because of its suicide bombings - an international legitimacy that it clearly desires, much to Israel's chagrin.

Russia's invitation - if not open embrace - has strained relations with Israel, which had steadily improved since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a patron to the Palestinian Liberation Organization that sided with Arab states in their conflict with the Israelis.

Only a year ago, Putin made the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Israel, where he received a red-carpet welcome, though Israel voiced concerns about Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear energy program and a proposed sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

Last month, Israel's transportation minister, Meir Sheetrit, called the Hamas invitation "a real knife in the back." Since then, however, Israel has moderated its criticism of Russia, evidently reassured by Russian promises to press Hamas to accept Israel's right to exist, to respect previous agreements and to, in effect, disarm.

Lavrov repeated those demands yesterday, though he cautioned that the process could be lengthy.

"I'll be very frank," he said in the interview, speaking English. "We don't expect that Hamas will do all this and change themselves overnight. It will be a process - hopefully not as long as the process in Great Britain regarding Northern Ireland. Hopefully it will take less time.

"But it will be a process, and I have some precious hope that having become now a legitimate political factor in the Palestinian and Middle East life, Hamas will reassess its new role, for which maybe it was not ready when the elections took place."

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Hamas had agreed to adhere to a cease-fire dating from March 2005, provided that Israel also refrained from violence.

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