Israel Criticizes Russia for Inviting Hamas for Visit

Israeli officials lashed out Friday at Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he betrayed Israel when he invited Hamas leaders to Moscow and warning of a strain in relations between the countries.

France, meanwhile, expressed support for the Russian move but reiterated that the Palestinian militant group must renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Putin's invitation Thursday to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which won last month's Palestinian elections, represented a break in the European and U.S. position not to deal with the group until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Putin said he did not view Hamas as a terror organization.

Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit of the centrist Kadima Party told The Associated Press that Putin's remarks were an "international scandal" that amounted to "stabbing Israel in the back."

Putin "I believe, would feel very bad if Israel would invite the Chechen organizations of terror into Israel and give them legitimacy," Sheetrit said, referring to separatists rebels who have been fighting Russia for 12 years in the mainly Muslim southern Russian republic of Chechnya.

Putin's invitation to Hamas also tainted Russia's attempts at being a mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Sheetrit said. "Russia should be removed from any negotiations in the Middle East," he said.

Hamas' surprise Jan. 25 election victory sent shock waves around the world. The group's founding manifesto calls for the destruction of Israel, and it has refused to move away from that position since the election.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau said Russia did not consult its international partners about its meeting proposal. But "we believe that it is an initiative that can contribute to advancing our positions," he added.

"We share with Russia the goal of leading Hamas toward positions that would allow for the goal of two states living in peace and security to be reached," he said.

Earlier Israeli criticism had been more muted, with officials noting that Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators with the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations. The Quartet, the sponsors of the "road map" Mideast peace plan, has declared Hamas an unfit negotiating partner unless it changes its ways.

In Gaza, a Hamas official, Ismail Haniyeh, praised Putin for offering the invitation and rejected the Israeli concerns. "We think countries in power can decide for themselves what kinds of positions and policies they can take," Haniyeh said.

Haniyeh said Thursday the group would accept the invitation, but no date was set.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Friday that his country was not happy with Hamas' ideology but the group was elected in a democratic poll.

"Hamas is in power, this is a fact," he told reporters in Taormina, Sicily, where NATO defense ministers were meeting. "Sometime in the future, many leading states will start supporting Hamas and have some contacts."

Alexander Kalugin, a Russian Mideast envoy, said that during the planned visit, Moscow will urge Hamas to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

Those intentions did not satisfy Israeli politicians, who said the invitation gave legitimacy to Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings in recent years.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, a hard-line party representing Russian immigrants, said Israel should recall its ambassador from Moscow for consultations.

"This is an attempt to appease the Muslim world at our expense," he told Israel Radio.

Dovish politician Yossi Beilin told Israel Radio that Israel should summon Russia's ambassador to Israel for clarifications and to convey Israel's displeasure over Putin's endorsement of Hamas, but said Israel should stop short of initiating a diplomatic rift.

Israel has a complex history with Russia, and its earlier incarnation as the Soviet Union. The Soviet empire supported Israel in its early years, but relations deteriorated and eventually collapsed as Israel increasingly allied itself with the United States.

Moscow cut ties with Israel in 1967 in the context of a Mideast war and strongly backed the Arab states. In many of its wars with its Arab neighbors, Israel found itself facing Soviet-trained pilots flying Soviet MiG fighter jets.

Moscow also barred Jews from leaving, jailing many who demanded the right to emigrate to Israel.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990s, the two nations restored ties, and relations warmed as Moscow loosened its emigration restrictions, prompting more than a million Russian speakers to immigrate here.

Putin's remarks Thursday, for some, brought back memories of the darker days. In a front-page story in Friday's Maariv daily, headlined "The Soviet Union returns," columnist Ben Caspit said Putin broke the worldwide alliance taking shape against Hamas. "Just like the good old days of the Cold War," he said.