updated 2/10/2006 8:08:52 PM ET 2006-02-11T01:08:52

An Israeli Cabinet minister on Friday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “stabbing Israel in the back” for inviting Hamas militants to Moscow following their decisive victory in Palestinian elections.

The invitation — Russia’s latest attempt to assert itself in Mideast diplomacy — represented a break with the U.S. and European position of not dealing with Hamas until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Putin further angered Israel on Thursday by saying he did not consider Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks, to be a terrorist group.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday to send a clear, strong message in any meetings with Hamas officials that the militant group must stop terror attacks on Israel.

Despite the controversy, France expressed hope the Russian overture could help lead Hamas toward acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Denis Simonneau reiterated that the Palestinian militant group must renounce violence and recognize Israel.

'International scandal'
In an interview with The Associated Press, Israeli Cabinet Minister Meir Sheetrit of the centrist Kadima Party called Putin’s remarks an “international scandal” that amounted to “stabbing Israel in the back.” His comments were echoed by other senior Israeli politicians.

Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators, along with the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations. The Quartet is the main sponsor of the “road map” peace plan, which calls on the Palestinians to disarm militant groups like Hamas as a step toward creating an independent state.

Sheetrit said the Russian invitation tainted Moscow’s attempts at being a Mideast mediator.

“Russia should be removed from any negotiations in the Middle East,” said Sheetrit, who is a close ally of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the front-runner in Israeli elections scheduled for March.

Love-hate relationship
Israel has a complex history with Russia. The former Soviet Union supported Israel in its early years, but relations soon deteriorated as Israel increasingly allied itself with the United States.

Moscow cut ties with Israel at the time of the 1967 Middle East War, and backed Israel’s Arab enemies for decades. The Soviets also barred Jews from leaving the country, jailing many who sought to emigrate to Israel.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990s, the two nations restored ties, and relations warmed as Moscow loosened its emigration restrictions. More than a million Russian speakers now live in Israel.

In recent years, Israel has quietly moved to upgrade anti-terror cooperation with Moscow in the wake of attacks by Muslim separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Putin, “I believe, would feel very bad if Israel would invite the Chechen organizations of terror into Israel and give them legitimacy,” Sheetrit said.

Israeli leaders across the political spectrum voiced similar views.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud Party, said he sent a letter to Putin asking him to cancel the invitation. “I think such a thing will in general give legitimacy to international terror and, specifically, the rise of Islamic terror,” Netanyahu said on Channel 2 TV.

Hamas at the helm
Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, welcomed the Russian initiative. “We think countries in power can decide for themselves what kinds of positions and policies they can take,” Haniyeh said Friday.

Haniyeh said Hamas would accept the invitation, though a date for a visit hasn’t been set.

Hamas has so far rejected calls to moderate its violent ideology, despite threats from Europe and Washington that tens of millions of dollars of vital aid could be in jeopardy.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Ivanov said Friday his country was not happy with Hamas’ ideology, but the group was elected in a democratic poll. After winning a majority of seats in last month’s parliamentary vote, Hamas is poised to form a new Palestinian government in the coming weeks.

“Hamas is in power, this is a fact,” Ivanov told reporters at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Taormina, Sicily. “Sometime in the future, many leading states will start supporting Hamas and have some contacts.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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