By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
PARIS, May 19 -- France has had contacts with the leaders of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas "for several months," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday.
"We must be able to talk if we want to play a role," Kouchner said in a radio interview. "These are not relations, they are contacts."
Kouchner's remarks followed the publication Monday of an interview with France's emissary to Hamas -- a former ambassador to Iraq -- in the daily newspaper Le Figaro.
The disclosure of French contacts with Hamas, which the United States and European Union consider a terrorist organization, followed an uproar in the U.S. presidential campaign over the issue of government contacts with sponsors of terrorism.
President Bush, during a Middle East visit last week, told the Israeli parliament, "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." He compared the willingness to meet with "terrorists and radicals" to the pre-World War II "appeasement" of Nazi Germany.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama chastised Bush for what he said was an obvious slap at his comments that the United States should open lines of communication with countries such as Iran and Syria in an effort to advance peace. The senator from Illinois has not advocated negotiating with the Hamas organization.
Hamas defeated the Fatah movement, long dominant in the Palestinian territories, in January 2006 parliamentary elections. After a power-sharing deal failed, Hamas last June forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip, where it is much stronger and more influential than Fatah, which continues to control the Palestinian Authority from its base in the West Bank.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter drew criticism from Israel and the Bush administration for meeting with Hamas leaders in Damascus, Syria, last month.
Regarding the French contacts, Israeli officials said they had been assured that France's policy had not changed.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "We don't believe it is helpful to the process of bringing peace to the region."
Carter and French emissary Yves Aubin de la Messuzi¿re gave similar accounts of their separate sessions with Hamas, saying its leadership appeared willing to moderate its political positions.
Kouchner, in his interview with Europe 1 radio, said Hamas still does not recognize the state of Israel but is "more flexible than before" on the subject. Historically, Hamas has called for Israel's elimination.
"They assured that they were ready to accept a Palestinian state," de la Messuzi¿re told Le Figaro, adding that the statement "amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel."
"They said they were ready to stop suicide attacks and, what surprised me is that the Islamist leaders recognize the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas," said de la Messuzi¿re, referring to the Palestinian Authority president from Fatah.
De la Messuzi¿re said he met with the Hamas prime minister, Ismael Haniyeh, and his Gaza foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar.
The government announced its contacts with Hamas because "we must do so clearly" and with the full knowledge of France's partners, Kouchner said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will make an official visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in June, Kouchner said, adding that Sarkozy will not meet with Hamas on that trip.