Reporter's Notebook: Hamas Breaks the Ice in Moscow

It's Moscow, and the streets, cars, rooftops, river and Kremlin are all white. Tons and tons of snow are everywhere. The river is iced over, freezing all this beauty in place until Spring.

For visitors, walking the Red Square and looking over the Kremlin is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. You wish the cold wouldn't interrupt your magical enjoyment of the place, but nothing can keep you warm at this time of year in Russia.

The scene reminds me of the freeze that Western countries put on relations with the Palestinian government as soon as the Islamic group Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections last January. These countries say they cannot support a political group that has claimed responsibility for more than 60 suicide bombings, despite Hamas being elected in fair, democratic election.

But the situation was different inside the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin got heated up by the Hamas victory and took the world, and even some of his own foreign affairs aides, by surprise when he invited Hamas' leaders to visit Moscow.

Putin's invitation was a not-so-subtle defiance of countries that keep Hamas on their list of terror organizations, like the United States, some European countries, and Israel.

Hamas, with no hesitation, accepted the invitation and sent a high-ranking delegation led by Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political bureau. The delegation included Hamas members from Gaza. They were greeted at the Moscow airport like any other international delegation. The Israeli newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, described it as "a royal welcoming."

In an apparent attempt to play it safe and reduce Israel's anger, Putin himself did not meet with the Hamas delegation. Instead, Hamas met with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Muslim and Christian leaders in Moscow. Lavrov told foreign reporters, including FOX News, that "Hamas has to change or they will have no future." He said Hamas has to renounce violence, to endorse existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements and to recognize Israel's right to exist.

But Meshal, guarded by more than a dozen of Hamas security personnel, was uncompromising, saying that Hamas would not consider recognizing Israel. "Where are Israel's borders identified? Could any country draw Israel's borders? Other Arab and Palestinian leaders recognized Israel, but Israel didn't respect their compromise."

He also ruled out any negotiations with the current Israeli government. "Yasser Arafat sat at negotiations with Israel for 10 years. In the end, Israel killed him." Then, laughing, he said, "Do you want Hamas to be killed?"

Instead of bending, Meshal listed his conditions to recognize Israel: "If Israel officially announces its readiness to withdraw from all territories occupied in 1967, the return of Palestinian refugees, dismantling of all Jewish settlements, the dismantling of the separation wall and the release of all prisoners — then our movement can take a big step toward peace." He added, "There can be no peace if the occupation continues."

On the surface, it may appear to be a Middle East dialogue. But look closer — changes occurred, and ice was broken.

The Hamas visit was covered by more than 400 journalists from all over the world. One of the Russian journalists told me that it was the biggest event covered by the international media since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia's invitation to Hamas was the first crack in the international front against the group. The Hamas election victory prompted threats from the United States and the European Union to cut aid in the amount of $1 billion to the Palestinian government. Israel confiscated about $50 million in Palestinian customs and taxes, which they collect every month at the borders.

Following Russia's invitation to Hamas, the EU released about $140 million to the Palestinian Authority. Additionally, after the meeting, the World Bank released $42 million to the Palestinians.

However, the West is concerned about the financial aid promised by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a meeting with Meshal in Tehran just days before he arrived in Moscow. Iranian aid gives the Muslim state a direct foothold in the Palestinian territories for the first time ever. Russian officials tried to negotiate a suitable mechanism with Hamas to keep the Western aid flowing to the Palestinian population, while guaranteeing that it could not be used for violence. Hamas assured the Russians that the money will not be mixed with the Hamas budget. Meshal told reporters, "The U.N. or any international body can observe the money distribution."

The other significant development is a change in the Hamas rhetoric. Only their charter still calls for the destruction of Israel. The Hamas leaders of today are talking about "a state within the 1967 borders," which implies a state alongside Israel. They use phrases like "stopping the bloodshed," and even the word "peace."

I asked Meshal what he meant by "peace." He replied, "A just peace based on Palestinians' rights." Officials that were with Meshal told me that "peace" means a long-term truce with Israel. The Russian foreign ministry said that Hamas promised to maintain the year-old ceasefire, so long as Israel refrains from using force. That ceasefire was negotiated at a conference of Palestinian factions last year in Cairo, Egypt. The designated prime minister from Hamas told FOX News, in an interview with Mike Tobin, that Hamas is interested in extending the ceasefire for ten more years.

Russia has its own economic incentives: a Palestinian official said that Russia would like to sponsor a weapons deal for the Palestinian police in any possible agreement with Israel. A deal like this could work well for the Russian weapons industry, and it also creates a positive environment for talks on a nuclear enrichment deal with Iran, a long-time Hamas supporter. Russian economists estimate that their country stands to gain $1 billion from such a nuclear enrichment deal.

Russia has political motivations as well. Russian journalists and experts told me that President Putin saw this as a chance to activate his country's role in the Middle East, and said that Putin thinks the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are good ground on which to compete with the U.S.

"I think Russians basically feel this is a game they are good at and they should be allowed to play," said Rose Gottemoeller, an American director to the Carnegie Moscow center, in an interview with FOX News' Dana Lewis. She went on to say, "To be frank, I think Washington is just going to have to get used to that."

The Bush administration refrained from criticizing the meeting, saying nothing about it, except that Russia put Hamas on notice that they must renounce violence and accept Israel if they hope to succeed in governing the Palestinian territories.

For Israel, the visit was a creation of more media debate and internal discussions about the relationship between the two countries. And it alerted them to keep an eye on Russia.

Israel has no intention, for the time being, to accept any changes on their internal unilateral pull-out plans from the West Bank after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer. Israeli officials said that this plan was agreed upon with President Bush in a letter handed over to Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, at a summit in Washington last year. Israel is planning to pull out from 43 percent of the West Bank, keeping only six settlement blocks and the Jordan valley under Israel's control.

So, no doubt, the Hamas victory brings the Middle East into a new era and brings new players into the mix. Everyone is looking after his own interests and competing in a game with no specific rules.

Hamas understands this and needs all the international allies it can get. So, it was not a surprise to hear Hamas' political chief say that Russia can be a significant force in promoting stability in the Middle East.

The Hamas visitors took a sightseeing tour of the Kremlin on the last day of their Moscow visit and got to see the beauty of the snow covering this historical building.

Meshal covered himself with heavy clothing to be protected in the bitter Moscow cold, and walked out of the Kremlin knowing only one thing for certain: Hamas has broken Moscow's ice.

Special thanks to FOX News correspondent Mike Tobin for contributing to this report.