Cracks are showing in the international demands on Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism before it takes over the Palestinian Authority.
Ignoring the preconditions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to host leaders of the radical Islamic group in Moscow, prompting similar overtures from elsewhere in Europe.
"We believe that it is an initiative that can contribute to advancing our positions," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau was quoted as saying late last week in the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz. "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.
There was consternation in Israel, which had hoped to parlay Hamas' unexpected victory in last month's Palestinian Authority election into a chance to make the Palestinian terrorist group embrace a new political pragmatism.
While some foreign analysts wrote off Putin's move as a bid to boost his diplomatic standing, many Israelis predicted it would spell the end of the "road map" to peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, which had been co-sponsored by Russia.
"As far as Israel is concerned, the Quartet, which adopted the road map in 2003, now becomes a 'Trio' whose members are the United States, European Union and United Nations," analyst Ze'ev Schiff wrote in Ha'aretz.
Fending off a hailstorm of Israeli criticism -- as well as a possible showdown with Washington -- Russia insisted it only wanted to help tame Hamas.
"We will ask Hamas to change their position according to the latest decisions of the Quartet, which are recognition of Israel, rejection of terrorism and execution of the Palestinian Authority's past agreements" with Israel, said Russia's Middle East envoy, Alexander Kalugin.
Such declarations did little to convince Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has worked to persuade the international community that Hamas reform must precede its recognition abroad.
"First they start with talks, after that they 'try to understand.' Then give money, then legitimacy. This is what we must act against," she told Israel Radio.
"This is a black-and-white situation," Livni said. "The biggest problem is that Hamas does not accept the terms of the Quartet."
There's also the matter of funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA). The 25-member-state European Union, which gave the PA some $600 million in 2005, is the PA's single largest source of financial support.
The initial EU stance toward Hamas could be found in the clear-cut words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who during a recent visit with PA President Mahmoud Abbas said Germany would not speak to Hamas until it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist.
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in Israel's March 28 general election, assumed a resigned tone over the Russian move. But he told his Cabinet that once the new Palestinian Authority Parliament is formed -- beginning next weekend -- "the rules of the game will change." The remarks were interpreted as a threat that Israel could sanction a future Hamas-led government by refusing to hand over taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Despite the pressure piled upon it, Hamas insists it has no plan to change its charter -- calling for jihad against the Jewish state -- or give up its weapons. At best, some Hamas leaders have offered Israel an extended truce -- cold comfort given that the group's theosophy predicts Zionism's end by the early 2020s.
Some Israelis predict that Hamas will end up paying at least lip service to the idea of peace, which will be eagerly welcomed by an international community feeling hard-pressed by the U.S.-led "war on terror" and the more recent Danish cartoon furor.
"Hamas will say something out of the corner of its mouth," predicted Ma'ariv's editor in chief, Amnon Dankner, in a front-page commentary. "A hazy bit of mumbling with deliberate dissembling, in order to allow the world to establish ties with it, talk to it, and recommend it to Israel as a negotiating partner." Dinah A. Spritzer contributed to this article.
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