Putin's Hamas overture provokes storm of outrage from Israel

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President Vladimir Putin's attempt to place Russia at the heart of the Middle East peace process by inviting Hamas leaders to Moscow for talks has provoked surprise in Europe and alarm in Israel.

Mr Putin broke ranks on Thursday with the other members of the international quartet - the US, EU and UN - by announcing the invitation to Hamas, officially designated as a terrorist organisation by the Americans. Mr Putin said that Russia had never considered Hamas to be terrorists. The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, predicted that "sometime in the future, many leading states will start maintaining some contacts with Hamas". Although Russia is a member of the quartet, which, last week in London, carefully co-ordinated its response to the shock Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, the Kremlin has been marginalised in the Middle East peace process for more than a decade.

The quartet warned the suicide bombers of Hamas last week that all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to "non-violence" and the recognition of Israel.

Diplomats said that the British Government had not been forewarned of the Russian overture to Hamas, although they stressed that it was too early to say whether the move marked a major shift in policy. France did not object, so long as agreed "objectives and principles" were observed.

But the reaction in Israel was sharp: "It's not just a slap in the face to Israel. It's a slap in the face to Western countries," said one Israeli official.

Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister, warned before flying home from a visit to the US that granting Hamas legitimacy without insisting it renounce terrorism and recognise Israel was a "slippery slope". It would, she added, have a negative effect "not only for Israel, but for the international community." But Gidi Grinstein, a former peace negotiator who now heads Re'ut, a Tel-Aviv think-tank, said: "It may be disappointing that Putin has broken ranks, but in the end he may be putting Hamas on the spot. They will have to choose between their loyalty to the Palestinian population, its well-being, prosperity and security on the one hand and their ideology."

Mr Putin's move appears to be part of a more assertive stance on the international stage before he hosts the G8 summit in St Petersburg next July. At home, Mr Putin has cracked down on human rights, opposition parties and press freedom.

The Republican senator John McCain, speaking at a security conference on Sunday, called for a boycott of the summit: "Under Mr Putin, Russia today is neither a democracy nor one of the world's leading economies, and I seriously question whether the G8 leaders should attend.''

But buoyed by strong oil prices, the Kremlin is safe in the knowledge that the West needs Moscow to help mediate in the nuclear stand-off with Iran.