Russia Ties Hamas's Prospects to Change

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, said he would tell a Hamas delegation to Moscow led by Khaled Meshal, left, that the Palestinian group's future depended on its transformation into a peaceful political institution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, said he would tell a Hamas delegation to Moscow led by Khaled Meshal, left, that the Palestinian group's future depended on its transformation into a peaceful political institution. (Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 4, 2006

MOSCOW, March 3 -- Russia's foreign minister said Friday that the radical Islamic group Hamas has no "serious future" unless it transforms itself into a peaceful political party and integrates its military wing, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, into the legitimate Palestinian security forces.

"This is the message we here in Moscow will be conveying to Hamas and hoping that Hamas will be listening," said the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, before meeting with a delegation from the Palestinian group, which won parliamentary elections in January.

"We don't expect that Hamas will do all this and change itself overnight," said Lavrov, who will visit Washington on Monday. "It will be a process hopefully not as long as the process in Great Britain regarding Northern Ireland," where paramilitary groups have been encouraged to disarm and enter politics.

Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations -- known in the Middle East peacemaking process as the quartet -- have called on Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept international agreements previously signed by the Palestinian Authority.

After a two-hour meeting with the Hamas delegation, Lavrov said that "the Hamas leaders said they would honor earlier agreements," including the Arab Peace Initiative and the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

Lavrov noted that these call for recognition of Israel in exchange for resolving issues connected with Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. He said that Hamas "insisted the moves must be reciprocal."

Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas delegation, laid out what his organization defines as reciprocity. "If Israel officially announces readiness to return to the 1967 borders, to the return of Palestinian refugees, the destruction of the dividing wall, the release of all arrested Palestinians, our movement will take steps towards peace," Meshal said, citing steps sharply at odds with Israeli positions.

When he arrived in Moscow, Meshal said the issue of recognition of Israel was a "decided issue. We don't intend to recognize Israel."

The invitation to Hamas to visit Moscow, which President Vladimir Putin extended last month, took some governments by surprise. The United States and European Union have sought to isolate the group and refuse to talk to its leaders unless it renounces violence.

The Moscow visit also drew criticism in Israel, where commentators noted that Russia was willing to speak to Hamas but has refused negotiations with separatists in Chechnya. Russia has never labeled Hamas a terrorist organization.

Putin, however, will not meet with the delegation, apparently in an effort to avoid further damage to relations with Israel. The Palestinian group will get only a sightseeing tour of the Kremlin, Russian officials said.

Lavrov rejected suggestions that Russia was trying to wrest control of the diplomatic process in the Middle East from the United States. "If there is a deficit of leadership to promote the commonly agreed goals, then we believe we have a responsibility to fill this deficit and to try -- without taking over anybody's role," he said in the 30-minute interview at the Foreign Ministry.

Lavrov said Russia was motivated by the same spirit of international cooperation that it has shown in its negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear program. Russia has offered to enrich uranium on its own soil for Iran's nuclear power plants, so as to guarantee that the country could not use the fuel to develop nuclear weapons.

Russia did not make this offer "for the sake of propaganda," Lavrov said, "because before this was announced we had very quiet, very professional consultations" with the European Union, United States and the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency. Russia acted "only after everyone said, 'This is a brilliant idea. Why don't you try it?' "

The energy agency board plans to meet at its Vienna headquarters Monday to discuss Iran. Iranian negotiators met again with officials from Britain, France and Germany in Vienna on Friday, but E.U. officials said there was no breakthrough on a deal to allay foreign concerns that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Lavrov said he had not given up on reaching a deal before the meeting. "I would not yet state that time is running out," said Lavrov, a former ambassador to the United Nations. "Let's give them a chance. The work continues."

If Iran fails to agree to a compromise by Monday, particularly a return to a moratorium on enriching uranium, the matter could switch to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions. Lavrov, however, made it clear that he wants to keep the issue away from the Security Council and resolve it through the IAEA. He said the U.N. agency is the best mechanism to monitor Iran's activities and reach a compromise.

"If the issue is sent to the Security Council, we are concerned that this would lead to an escalation of the situation," the minister said. "If it is in the Security Council -- I know how the Security Council works -- you start with a soft reminder, then you call upon them, then you require, then you demand, then you threaten. It will become a self-propelling function while we haven't yet received answers from our partners on what would be the actual strategy in the Security Council."

He called military action unacceptable, "both for the Iranian situation but also in the context of what is going on the region. And I'm saying this not to send any messages to Iran so they should not be afraid of the use of force. . . . I want to emphasize the need for all those involved to develop a strategy to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company