AIRPORT CITY, Israel, (AP) – Heading into talks with Palestinian leaders, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter offered to ferry messages from the militant Islamic Hamas group to the United States and even to Israel.
However, both potential recipients expressed displeasure at his planned meeting Friday with an exiled Hamas leader in Damascus, Syria. Carter meets Tuesday with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Carter — who brokered Israel’s historic peace accord with Egypt in 1979 — on Monday defended his plan to meet Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashaal, saying that isolating Hamas is counterproductive. He has no plans to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Opponents say engaging Hamas in talks would grant legitimacy to the violently anti-Israel group and undermine moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he tries to make peace with the Jewish state.
Carter’s argument that Hamas should not be isolated is one that has gained credence among some in the U.S. Hamas rules Gaza but is ostracized by Israel, the U.S. and Europe as a terror group.
“I think it is absolutely crucial that in the final and dreamed-about and prayed-for peace agreement for this region that Hamas be involved and Syria will be involved,” Carter told a business conference outside Tel Aviv.
“I can’t say that they will be amenable to any suggestions, but at least after I meet with them I can go back and relay what they say, as just a communicator, to the leaders of the United States,” he said.
The U.S., European Union and Israel have blacklisted Hamas for its history of suicide bombings against Israel and its refusal to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.
Israel’s top leaders, in a stinging rebuff, are boycotting Carter during his visit, in part because he plans to meet later in the week in Syria with Mashaal.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters Monday that the U.S. has “made clear our views that we did not think now is the moment for (Carter) or anyone to be talking with Hamas.”
The U.S. would be “happy to hear” Carter’s reflections on his visit with Hamas, but it would not likely change the administration’s views on the militant group, Casey said.
Carter also offered to relay Hamas’ views to Israel.
If the U.S. agrees to hear what Hamas says, “I hope then the Israeli government will deign to meet with me — they have so far refused,” he said.
President Shimon Peres, Israel’s ceremonial head of state, is the only Israeli leader who has met with Carter since he arrived on Sunday. Peres, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, criticized Carter for planning to meet with Mashaal, calling it a “very big mistake,” a Peres spokeswoman said.
United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said any move to produce political progress would be welcome.
“If Jimmy Carter can achieve that by talking to Hamas, why not?” Holmes told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
However, Holmes differentiated between Carter talking to Hamas and the U.N. or Western governments talking to the militant group.
“On the humanitarian side, we’ve always made clear we will talk to Hamas at technical level … to make sure humanitarian operations can function as they need to function in Gaza,” he said. But he said that was different from the political discussions Carter plans.
A schedule released by Carter’s aides showed no plans for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The cold shoulder is a highly unusual brush-off to a former U.S. leader — especially one so closely linked to Mideast peacemaking.
Carter brokered Israel’s historic peace accord with Egypt in 1979, the first treaty it signed with an Arab country.
But his popularity hit bottom in Israel since he published a book two years ago drawing comparisons between Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza and apartheid in South Africa. The planned talks with Mashaal have only fueled the Israeli discontent.
The former president’s nine-day Mideast peace mission will also take him to the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.