CAIRO — The top leader of the militant Hamas group said Tuesday that President Barack Obama's pressure on Israel to freeze construction in West Bank settlements was an essential step toward restarting peace efforts.
The militant group _ which is eager to win international acceptance of its rule in Gaza though it is shunned by the U.S. and others as a terrorist organization _ has tried to sound more pragmatic since Israel's punishing three-week offensive early this year.
Leader Khaled Mashaal's endorsement of Obama's push also included an appeal for the international community to consider Hamas a "positive element" in the search for Middle East peace.
"There is a new language from President Obama, but we expect real pressure on Israelis," Mashaal said. "There are demands Israel stop the settlements but this is not the price we are after ... although it's an essential step."
Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was pressing the demand on settlements in meetings Tuesday with Israeli leaders, who have refused to accept the call or to endorse the concept of a Palestinian state.
Obama has so far followed the Bush administration's lead in not talking to Hamas. But in his remarks in Cairo, Obama seemed to suggest some basis for believing that Palestinian militants who rule Gaza might be drawn into the peace process.
Mashaal seemed to pick up on that.
"Hamas would be a positive element in helping with a solution that is fair to the Palestinian people and enables them to realize their rights," Mashaal said. "Hamas will not be an obstacle. Everyone knows that the obstacle is Israel."
Hamas is also trying to form a unity government with rivals from the more moderate Fatah movement under Egyptian mediation, and Mashaal led a Hamas delegation in more talks Tuesday in Cairo.
But that effort has hung up on Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel _ a central requirement for any Palestinian government to win international backing.
Reconciling the rivals under the leadership of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas is key to resuming peace efforts with Israel.