April 21, 2008
Leah Yoon, NPR




Washington, D.C. – In a live interview with host Steve Inskeep airing today on Morning Edition, Former President Jimmy Carter said the Palestinian group Hamas is prepared to accept a peace agreement that recognizes the state of Israel as long as Palestinians approve the deal in a referendum.

Carter, who met with senior Hamas officials over the weekend, said he was acting as a private citizen representing the Carter Center. He disputed State Department claims that he was urged not to meet with Hamas officials, and said he spoke with State Department official David Welch prior to his trip.

“He never asked me or even suggested that I not come,” Carter said. “And then subsequently I saw all kinds of statements out of the State Department that said they begged me not to come, they urged me not to come. All of that is absolutely false. They never once asked me not to come.”

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STEVE INSKEEP: Former President Jimmy Carter has finished a diplomatic mission that the Bush administration says it asked him not to take. President Carter met with leaders from the Palestinian group Hamas. That put him in the same room with a group that is blamed for terrorist acts - one that the U-S government refuses to meet, but one that Carter says must be met. This morning he's on the line from Jerusalem. Mr. President, welcome back to the program.

JIMMY CARTER: Thank you, Steve, it's good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: You left this meeting claiming a significant-sounding concession from Hamas on the existence of Israel, or a peace agreement that includes the existence of Israel. What was it?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I'm here, I make clear not as mediator, or a negotiator, but just as private citizen representing the Carter Center, to talk to people who are excluded from the peace process that have to be included at the end, and that's Hamas, as you already mentioned, but also, equally significant, is Syria. So I proposed a series of questions to Hamas. One of the key one was, would you accept any peace agreement that's negotiated by Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert if it's submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum or either through a new government that would be elected. And we wrote out this question so there would be absolutely no question about it, and they said yes, they would accept it even if they strongly opposed some provisions in the peace agreement.

INSKEEP: You're saying you asked Hamas, if the Palestinian people vote for peace, including recognition of Israel as a state, would you accept that, and you were told the answer was yes?

CARTER: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said today that your statements on this point - quote - do not mean that Hamas is going to accept the results of the referendum. Have they already begun backing off what they told you?

CARTER: I don't know who he is. The ones I met with were the top leaders of Hamas, all of their politburo members, including the leaders from inside Gaza and also those who are in Syria. And they met all day yesterday with themselves, each other, and they gave me this response. So I don't know who that person is that you mention, but I don't think he's in the leadership position.

INSKEEP: So do you think you made a significant step toward peace here, Mr. President?

CARTER: No, I don't claim to be achieving anything myself. I just presented a question so that it was unequivocal, put it in writing so that there would be no question about any word in the declaration, and they finally, after hours of discussion, accepted it as an answer that was yes.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, I want to play a little bit of tape here. This is a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, who was asked last week about your plan to meet with Hamas.

TOM CASEY, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We didn't think it would be an appropriate gesture and encouraged him not to, in fact, meet with Hamas officials.

INSKEEP: And, of course, you know why, because of Hamas's record as --

CARTER: Well, let me say that, before I came over here, I put in a call to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and she got on the telephone. She was in Europe, she got on the telephone to her deputy, David Welch, and he -- I had a twenty minute conversation with him. He was quite positive. He never asked me or even suggested that I not come. And then subsequently I saw all kinds of statements out of the State Department that said they begged me not to come, they urged me not to come. All of that is absolutely false. They never once asked me not to come.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting, Mr. President, that perhaps the Bush administration would welcome some contacts with Hamas even though they'd like to publicly disown any such contacts?

CARTER: I can't say that. The fact is, that there are strong and daily negotiations between Israel and Hamas. And it's public knowledge the mediators are the Egyptians, including the top intelligence officer in Egypt, Omar Suleiman. And we met with him, we met with President Mubarak. And Israelis are putting forward proposals to the Egyptians. The Egyptians share that with Hamas. Hamas gives them an answer. Egypt goes back to Jerusalem with the answer. That goes on every day. So I'm not negotiating or mediating, but everybody knows there are negotiations going on and, as a matter of fact, the deputy prime minister of Israel asked me to arrange with Hamas an agreement that he could participate personally in the negotiations for the prisoner exchange.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that Israelis are already talking with Hamas, and they know they're going to have to talk with Hamas in order to come to peace?

CARTER: Absolutely. Sure, there's no doubt about it. There's no way to arrange a ceasefire, there's no way to have the prisoner exchange without direct talks -- maybe not direct, but through some intermediary, and Egypt has been chosen.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much for taking the time today, I appreciate it.

CARTER: It's a pleasure, thank you.

INSKEEP: Jimmy Carter is a former president of the United States. He say, acting as a private citizen, he went to the Middle East and met with, among others, leaders of the Palestinian group, Hamas.