Russia and France reach out to Hamas

Talks, possibly aid, could fend off radical influences.

Hamas appeared to break out of its international isolation over the weekend as both Russia and France backed talks with the Islamic militants to discuss continued foreign aid to the cash strapped Palestinian Authority (PA).

Hamas's plans to attend talks in Moscow drew initial Israeli accusations of a "slippery slope" toward legitimizing an organization branded as terrorists in the US and Europe. But the diplomatic opening might provide a way to steer the new Palestinian government away from the influence of more radical regimes such as Iran, some say.

"The mentality of engagement is still the rule," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzlyia Interdisciplinary Institute just outside Tel Aviv. "If we engage them, we can influence them."

Hamas, for its part, recently suggested that it would accept an open-ended truce with Israel. Leaders have also indicated that they may appoint cabinet ministers from outside the movement. Both moves are seen as an attempt to save face with the international community and allow a dialogue to go forward even with those who say they will not negotiate with the group. It also buys time for Hamas to adjust to its new responsibilities of running the government.

Yet six days before a new Palestinian parliament with a Hamas majority is sworn in, Israel's government maintained its hard line.

Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni called the emerging dialogue "a process that needs to be stopped." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, said the inauguration would "change the rules of the game," and that Israel would consider the Palestinian government a "Hamas Authority," Haaretz reported.

In the aftermath of Hamas's victory in the Jan. 25 election, the Quartet of sponsors of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - the US, Russia, the European Union, and the UN - adopted three stipulations for future relations with a Hamas-run PA: recognition of Israel, foreswearing violence, and acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian accords.

The conditions further clouded the prospects for the continuation of about $1.5 billion in foreign support keeping the Palestinian economy afloat. Recoiling at the international pressure to change course, Hamas leaders vowed to look for financial backing in the Arab world and Muslim states like Iran.

But at a time when Hamas has been struggling to convince the international community of its credentials as a legitimate political movement rather than an underground militia, realigning the Palestinians with Iran's anti-Western theocracy could harm their cause, analysts say.

"It would damage the image of Hamas worldwide. We don't want to lose our historical relations with Western countries and moderate Arab countries," said Samir Barghouthi, a Ramallah-based economist who advises the European Union and the World Bank. On the other hand, "if the West lets down the Palestinians and says, 'You can go and get your money from Iran,' this for sure will help Hamas and Iran become allies."

The Russian overture to Hamas was considered a bid by President Vladimir Putin to differentiate his Middle East policy from that of the US, and insert Moscow as a key player in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. In the debate over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russia has also tried to strike out its own more conciliatory approach.

The debate ruptured a united front by the Quartet. But the upcoming talks in Moscow also allow the Quartet to test the limits of Hamas's flexibility toward Israel while the US continues to boycott the Islamic militants.

"Opening dialogue with Hamas will help the political process," said Mohammed Yaghi, a Palestinian political analyst. "The world should realize that it took many years to convince [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to recognize a two-state solution. And also it will take Hamas time, but it should be a dialogue."

Hamas has said that the Palestinians need to reduce their dependence on aid from the West so they won't find themselves beholden to diplomatic pressure.

Hamas is expected to look to the Gulf states, which have taken on a steadily larger chunk of aid to the PA.

Iran remains a wild card, observers say - believed to be flush with oil money but keeping its distance from the PA because of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. An alliance with Hamas would give Iran new influence with which to pressure Israel.

"Potentially, Israel has to recognize the possibility that on no fewer than three fronts, Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, they are going to be confronting a proxy of Iran," says Yossi Alpher, editor of Bitterlemons.org, an Internet journal on Middle East affairs, "and all of this against the backdrop of a nuclear Iran."

Mr. Alpher says that Russian intentions behind the Hamas invitation remain unclear. Sunday, the liberal Haaretz newspaper argued the talks should be judged based on their results.

"If the Russians act as promised, in accordance with the Quartet announcement, and influence Hamas to change, the Russian move should be supported," it wrote in an editorial. "But if the journey to Moscow will end up as a propaganda achievement for Hamas, without a switch in its stance, it will hurt the chances for a calm and a diplomatic solution."

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