MOSCOW – Hamas' political chief said Saturday during a controversial visit to Moscow that Russia can be a significant force in promoting stability in the Middle East, although he did not back off from his earlier vow not to recognize Israel.
That invitation to a group considered a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and Israel angered the Jewish state and surprised Russia's partners in the so-called Quartet of Mideast negotiators.
They had agreed to withhold international recognition from Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, until it moderated its vehement opposition to Israel.
"Russia, which occupies a territory spanning Europe and Asia, is best positioned to sponsor a dialogue between civilizations and to ensure a balance of forces in the world," the Interfax news agency reported.
Mashaal and the rest of the Hamas delegation then were to meet with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II and the head of the Russian parliament's foreign relations committee.
In an apparent attempt to avoid further damage to relations with Israel, Putin will not meet the Palestinian delegation. The visitors will instead only take a sightseeing tour of the Kremlin on Sunday.
On Friday, the Hamas delegation met with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. A Foreign Ministry statement said Russia urged Hamas to reject violence "as a means of obtaining political goals," to endorse existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements and to recognize Israel's right to exist.
But Mashaal struck an uncompromising stance, saying on arrival that Hamas would not consider recognizing Israel.
Later, Mashaal said the Jewish state first must withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 and allow Palestinian refugees to return, among other conditions, if it wants peace. That statement could be significant because Hamas in the past has called for Israel's elimination altogether.
"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. "There can be no peace if the occupation continues."
He also ruled out any negotiations with the current Israeli government.
"Yasser Arafat sat at negotiations with Israel for 10 years," he said, referring to the late Palestinian leader.
The Bush administration refrained from criticizing the meeting Friday, noting that Russia put Hamas on notice it must renounce terrorism and accept Israel if it hopes to succeed in governing the Palestinian territories.
The Foreign Ministry said Hamas promised to maintain a year-old cease-fire if Israel refrains from using force. A conference of Palestinian factions in Cairo, Egypt, last year negotiated a cease-fire by Hamas and other militants.
Since winning parliamentary elections, Hamas repeatedly has said it would be willing to continue the informal truce if Israel reciprocates.
Lavrov also said Hamas was ready to honor all agreements the Palestinian administration had undertaken as part of the Middle East peace process if Israel took steps to meet it halfway, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
He said Russia and Hamas had also agreed to pursue contacts.
Russia's invitation to Hamas was the first crack in an international front against the group, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in dozens of suicide bombings. Hamas' election victory prompted threats from the United States and EU to cut off $1 billion in aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
Israeli acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted that the international community must maintain a united front against Hamas and said Russia promised to limit its future contacts with the group.
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.