Palestinian Hamas officials arrived in Russia for first talks with a major foreign power on Friday but poured cold water on hopes of a peace breakthrough by saying they were firm in their refusal to recognize Israel.
"The issue of recognition is a done issue. We are not going to recognize Israel," Mohammed Nazzal, a senior official accompanying exiled Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal, told reporters after their delegation arrived in Moscow.
Mashaal was quick to slam Israel, saying Israel was not honoring the Road Map.
"The problem is not Hamas' stance, but Israel's stance. It is in fact not honoring the Road Map," he said.
Although it deals a blow to U.S.-led efforts to isolate Hamas since it swept Palestinian elections in January, Russia's mediation is seen by some in the West as a chance to press the Islamic militant group into embracing more moderate views.
Hamas officials upon arrival in Moscow (Photo: Reuters)
Russia has said that, in talks slated for later on Friday, it would endorse the view of fellow patrons of the Road Map to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence that Hamas must recognize the Jewish state, renounce violence, and accept past peace accords.
The pledge helped quell concern in Israel, which sees Hamas as a spearhead of a more than 5-year-old Palestinian uprising.
After initially condemning Moscow's overtures toward Hamas, Israel adopted a wait-and-see attitude on the talks' results.
Hamas regards the visit as a chance to push its position on the Western stage after winning support in the developing world.
"Our visit to Moscow is a very important step for achieving a breakthrough in our international position," Mashaal said.
"This is a visit that has no conditions. We will listen to the position of Russian officials and we will clarify our own position," he said.
Hamas, whose charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction, has masterminded 60 suicide bombings during a Palestinian revolt but has largely abided by a truce declared last year which paved the way for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.
While so far ruling out permanent coexistence, Hamas has said it could accept a long-term ceasefire if Israel also quits all of the occupied West Bank and accepts an influx of Palestinian war refugees – both non-starters for Israel.
"We want to have peace in the region, but peace will not be achieved before the removal of the occupation," Mashaal said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to head Moscow's delegation in talks with Hamas, which will be closely monitored by Washington, the Road Map's chief patron.
Lavrov said Friday that Hamas will have no future if the group fails to transform itself into a political structure, adding that there was a "need for Hamas having been elected to a political body to transform itself into a political party and to be sure that the military wing of Hamas becomes a legitimate part of the Palestinian security structures."
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said,
"Our position is that if you are going to meet with a terrorist group, you should make it clear to them that their way of doing business is unacceptable, that their philosophy is contrary to the norms of the civilized world, and that they should get with the program."
By inviting Hamas to Moscow, President Vladimir Putin is seen as trying to boost Russia's diplomatic clout in the Middle East, on the wane since the Soviet Union fell.
Russia has also been trying to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, by proposing that Iranian uranium enrichment – a process that can produce bombs – takes place on its soil.