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Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that he plans to invite Hamas leaders to a meeting in Moscow.

"Having maintained our contacts with the organization Hamas, we intend to invite their leaders to Moscow in the near future to search for solutions," Putin told a press conference in Madrid.

His announcement directly contradicts a statement issued two weeks ago by the Quartet, of which Russia is a member. That statement said: "There is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic state. A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel's right to exist, and disarm."

"We have never considered Hamas a terrorist organization," Putin said in Madrid. "Hamas came to power ... as a result of democratic, legitimate elections, and we must respect the choice of the Palestinian people."

The decision outraged Israel. "The Russians have never put Hamas on their list of terrorist organizations, and we have a long-standing dispute with them about it," said a government official. "The invitation to Hamas leaders to come to Moscow contradicts the position Russia presented in the Quartet, and with all due respect to Russia, the international community has a different stance."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who met in New York yesterday with the UN ambassadors of the five permanent Security Council members, urged them to stand fast on the four conditions that the council - again including Russia - had previously set for recognition of Hamas: recognition of Israel, disarmament, abandoning terror and accepting the road map peace plan. "Every sign of weakness and of recognition will be interpreted by Hamas as legitimizing terror," she said. "It's important that the international community insist on the fulfillment of these conditions."

Livni's visit to New York was shorter than planned due to an unscheduled meeting with U.S. President George Bush in Washington yesterday morning. During the half-hour meeting, Bush promised that the U.S. would not back down from the demands the Quartet made of Hamas.

However, the U.S. reacted cautiously to Putin's bombshell. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, in a briefing for reporters, said merely that Russia is a member of the Quartet, and the U.S. expects any meeting between Russian officials and Palestinian representatives to comply with the conditions laid out by the Quartet.

Welch also said that the U.S. would continue its dialogue with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Bush, however, told Livni that no further U.S.-Palestinian dialogue would be possible unless the new Palestinian government recognizes Israel.