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The United States is not prepared to meet with Hamas, but recognizes there will be countries willing to do so, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a closed meeting of Quartet representatives in London on January 30.

Based on that statement and statements made by the Russian foreign minister at the same meeting, details of which have reached Haaretz, it is safe to assume that Russia's invitation to Hamas did not totally surprise the Americans.

The meeting was attended by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the Quartet's special envoy on disengagement affairs James Wolfensohn.

The closed discussion reflected differences of opinion between the United States and the other Quartet members, both over Israeli policy in the territories and Hamas. The gap was underscored by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who attended the meeting as a senior monitor of the PA elections. Carter criticized Israel, saying its policy in the territories had grown more oppressive in recent years and the Quartet has restrained its reactions since the U.S. is not pressuring Israel.

Rice did not directly respond to Carter, but said that the meeting's content should not be made public. She added it is necessary to work in the upcoming period to stabilize the government of Mahmoud Abbas, prevent Iranian involvement, and avoid bolstering the wrong elements in the Israeli elections.

Lavrov said that Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal's speech immediately following the group's victory proves that it is not a lost cause, and that the Quartet must continue to pressure Hamas without overdoing it.

While Rice insisted that Hamas must be made to understand that it has to change basic declared positions, statements by Annan and Solana indicate that they believed Hamas could be judged by its performance, since a change of declared positions in the near future cannot be expected. Annan said Hamas likely will not accept Israel's conditions (i.e. changing its charter to recognize Israel's right to exist, disarming, and committing to agreements previously signed by the PA) after the three-month period in which the Palestinian transition government is expected to operate. Rice replied that these conditions are not Israel's but the Quartet's.

Regarding the statement to be issued after the meeting, Lavrov suggested including the Quartet's position on the separation fence's route. Rice replied that the matter under discussion is not the separation fence, but what the Quartet will tell Hamas. Rice said Israelis should not be overburdened at a time when their prime minister has had a stroke and Hamas has won the PA elections, but Lavrov argued that moderate Palestinians need bolstering. The group eventually decided to mention the separation fence.

Carter praised the PA for holding fair and free elections despite the harsh conditions of occupation. He reported on his meeting before the elections with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told him he would reject peace negotiations as long as unauthorized arms have not been removed from the PA. In Carter's view, this prerequisite will prevent the sides from ever holding peace talks. He urged the Quartet to hold talks with Hamas leaders. He said he met Hamas representatives, who said they want a unity government and would be able to extend the cease-fire for decades. He also suggested that the Quartet persuade Fatah to join a unity government.