France Admits Contacts With Hamas

France Admits Contacts With Hamas

France confirmed Monday that it had been engaged in contacts with the leaders of Hamas, the radical Islamic group that is running Gaza, for several months to try to better understand its positions

The Bush administration, which recently likened talks with Hamas and other groups to appeasement of the Nazis, criticized the French for the contacts, calling them unhelpful. There was no immediate comment from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who has said he will not talk to Hamas, which he accuses of carrying out a bloody coup in Gaza last June.

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said there had been no negotiations with Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and the European Union.

“These are not relations; they are contacts,” Mr. Kouchner said on Europe 1 radio. “We are not the only ones to have them. We must be able to talk if we want to play a role.”

Mr. Kouchner confirmed a report in the newspaper Le Figaro that quoted a retired French diplomat and former ambassador to Iraq, Yves Aubin de La Messuzière, as saying that he had met a month ago in Gaza with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, and Mahmoud Zahar, among the top Hamas leaders in the Palestinian territories.

The contacts were confirmed just days before a planned visit by Mr. Kouchner to the region, which will include a stop in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Less than a day before the confirmation, President Bush completed a visit to the Middle East, where he reaffirmed his opposition to engaging Hamas.

Asked about the France-Hamas contacts, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington, “We don’t believe it is helpful to the process of bringing peace to the region.”

In Jerusalem, Arye Mekel, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said his government had already raised the issue of the meeting “at the highest levels” of the French government and “received assurances that there is no change in the position of France vis-à-vis Hamas.”

Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the French meeting was part of a general softening in the European position toward Hamas. Various European officials, they said, feel uneasy about the European position because they are concerned that it is unrealistic and they would like to formulate a new one. This meeting, they said, is part of those efforts.

Besides classifying Hamas as a terrorist organization that opposes Israel’s right to exist, the Bush administration says that contacts with Hamas undermine Mr. Abbas and his appointed prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who favor negotiations for a permanent two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

According to the account of Mr. Aubin de La Messuzière, however, his Hamas interlocutors told him nothing that they had not repeatedly stated in public. “They assured me that they were ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, which amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel,” he said.

Hamas, however, has always said that such a Palestinian state could be established only if Israel pulled out of all land occupied in 1967, a step Israel is not prepared to take. Hamas would not recognize the state of Israel in perpetuity, allowing only the idea of living side by side with it for 10 to 15 years, in a hudna, or truce.

Hamas has enforced a largely effective ban on suicide bombings inside the post-1967 Israeli borders since August 2004, with a few bombings carried out by local cells. Hamas has been talking to the Egyptians, who have been trying to mediate a cease-fire in Gaza between Israel and Hamas for months to end rocket attacks on Israel and Israeli attacks in Gaza, and to bring about a release of prisoners, including Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli corporal captured in Israel and taken to Gaza in a Hamas-led operation on June 25, 2006.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, considered a supporter of Israel, will make an official visit there in June and will spend “several hours” in the Palestinian territories, but will not talk to Hamas representatives, Mr. Kouchner said.

The European Union said it would continue its ban on formal contacts with Hamas.

Mr. Kouchner said he found that Hamas was “more flexible than before,” but was still unwilling to recognize the state of Israel. He did not elaborate.

Hamas leaders have said they would like to have good relations with Western European countries, which they regard as more sympathetic to their positions than Washington. Their implicit desire is to split the United States and Europeans on the issue.

So far, all three main American presidential candidates have said they will continue the Bush administration’s ban on discussions with Hamas until it meets previously agreed-upon criteria: recognition of the right of Israel to exist, acceptance of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements and an end to violence.