ITALY - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi says there was a need for dialogue with Hamas to help the Palestinian Islamist group develop politically.
The United States and the European Union describe Hamas, which has led a Palestinian uprising against Israel for almost seven years, as a terrorist group.
"Hamas exists. It's a complex structure that we should help to evolve - but this should be done with transparency," Prodi said at a conference in central Italy.
"One must push for dialogue so that it happens, and not shut anyone out of dialogue."
A Prodi spokesman said the prime minister's comments in no way suggested a break with European Union policy on Hamas, or that it be brought into negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The aim of having a channel open, the spokesman said, was to encourage moderation and avoid dividing the Palestinians.
"But the difference is between negotiations and dialogue. The negotiations between Abu Mazen (Abbas) and Olmert will go ahead," Prodi spokesman Silvio Sircana told Reuters.
"At the same time, you cannot close any possibility of dialogue with Hamas because one must try to bring it along to a more moderation position."
Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in January 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after routing forces loyal to Abbas' secular Fatah faction. Since then, Gaza's main crossings have been closed to all but humanitarian supplies.
Olmert has sought to isolate Hamas in Gaza while increasing cooperation with Abbas and the Western-backed government he appointed in the occupied West Bank, where Fatah is dominant.
Prodi said he had already warned Olmert and Abbas against seeking peace with only some Palestinians.
"I told the two political leaders that there cannot be a peace with Palestinians divided and even they understand that," he said. At the same time, Sircana said Italy strongly supported talks between the two leaders.
Last month, Israel's ambassador to Italy expressed indignation after Italy's foreign minister said Hamas should not be isolated since it had won democratic elections.
Hamas says it will not formally recognise Israel and its 1988 charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Hamas leaders have offered a long-term truce with Israel in return for a viable Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.