MOSCOW – The leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas rejected pressure to soften hostility to Israel Friday, saying the Jewish state must first withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 and allow refugees to return if it wants peace.
Embarking on the group's highest-profile diplomatic mission ever, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal said that if Israel took these steps, "our movement will have taken a big step toward peace."
That statement — while sticking to Hamas' tradition of ambiguity — could be significant, because Hamas in the past has called for Israel's elimination altogether.
Mashaal also welcomed the outcome of high-level talks with Russian officials, who had said before the meetings that they would pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and abandon violence.
The talks were "good, constructive and open," Mashaal said after meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Russian officials.
Lavrov was quoted as saying that Hamas was ready to honor all the agreements the Palestinian administration had undertaken as part of the Middle East peace process if Israel made steps to meet it halfway.
He said Russia and Hamas had also agreed to pursue contacts, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
"I won't give overly optimistic forecasts, but this is a step in the right direction," Lavrov was quoted as saying. He cautioned, however, that "there is a long way to go to resume the peace process."
The Russian Foreign Ministry said later Friday that Hamas also promised to maintain a year-old cease-fire if Israel refrains from force. Mashaal could not be reached immediately for comment.
Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, has largely stuck to the informal truce, though other militant groups have carried out attacks against Israel.
Russia's invitation to Hamas, extended by President Vladimir Putin, was the first crack in an international front against the group, which won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament in January.
The invitation provoked anger in Israel and surprise among the other members of the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, which had agreed to withhold international recognition from the radical Islamic movement until it moderated its stance.
Israel's acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Friday that the international community must maintain a united front against Hamas as the militant group prepares to form the next Palestinian Cabinet.
Hamas' election victory prompted threats from the U.S. and the EU to cut off $1 billion in aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
Mashaal struck an uncompromising stance.
"If Israel officially announces its readiness to withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967, the return of Palestinian refugees, the closure of settlements, the dismantling of the dividing wall, the release of all prisoners, then our movement will take a big step toward peace," he said. The Israelis have rejected such conditions.
Lavrov said the Hamas leadership had agreed to allow international officials to monitor their budget funding, according to Interfax and RIA-Novosti.
"They are ready to create a mechanism of international oversight," Lavrov was quoted as saying. No further details were provided.
Ahead of the talks with the Hamas delegation — which met for four hours with Russian officials — Lavrov warned that it must become an essentially political movement whose militant wing could be subsumed into the recognized Palestinian "security structures."
Lavrov, used careful language in his meeting with The Associated Press and several U.S. media outlets — but the transformation he envisioned would mark the end of Hamas as what the European Union, the United States and Israel view as a terrorist group.
"I don't think Hamas would have any serious future if Hamas doesn't change," he said.
Lavrov said Russia understood the change would take time, and compared it to the peace process in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army gradually was compelled to disarm and embrace a political process in which the front stage was occupied by Sinn Fein, its political wing.
Hamas needs "to reassess its new role, for which maybe it wasn't ready when the elections took place," Lavrov said.
"It will be a process, hopefully not as long as the process in Great Britain regarding Northern Ireland," he said.
But the difficulties of achieving change were illustrated Friday when Mashaal declared upon arrival that the group had no intention of discussing a recognition of Israel — one of the key demands set by the international community and by Russia itself.
"The issue of recognition [of Israel] is a decided issue," Mashaal said. "We don't intend to recognize Israel."