Jimmy Carter Meets with Hamas Leaders

Former President Jimmy Carter says the militant group would not undermine talks for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, as long as the Palestinian people approve the deal by referendum. Hamas also says it will offer Israel a 10-year truce if it withdraws from land seized in the 1967 war.

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Former President Jimmy Carter says that the Palestinian militant group Hamas is prepared to accept Israel's right to live in peace. Carter met with Hamas leaders over the weekend, a meeting opposed by Israel and the Bush administration. They both shun Hamas and view it as a terrorist organization.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. is brushing aside talk that Carter's mission represents any kind of breakthrough.

MICHELE KELEMEN: In an interview with NPR today, former President Jimmy Carter said he posed a very specific question to Hamas leaders. Would you accept a peace agreement negotiated by the Palestinian authority and Israel if Palestinians approve it in a referendum?

Former President JIMMY CARTER: We wrote out this question so there would be absolutely no question about it, and they said yes. They will accept it even if they strongly opposed some provisions in the peace agreement.

KELEMEN: Carter says this means Hamas won't undermine Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to negotiate with Israel. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, in a news conference in Syria today, seemed to back this up, saying the group wouldn't formally recognize Israel, but would accept a Palestinian state based on the borders with Israel before the 1967 war.

Mr. KHALED MASHAAL (Chairman, Hamas Political Bureau): (Through translator) We have offered a ten-year truce starting after Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders as an alternative to recognition. This is the clear vision of Hamas.

KELEMEN: Bush administration officials didn't sound impressed. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she takes the comments with a grain of salt. State Department spokesman Tom Casey added, nothing has changed.

Mr. TOM CASEY (Deputy Spokesman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, US Department of State): The bottom line is Hamas still believes in the destruction in the state of Israel. They don't believe Israel has a right to exist and it's pretty hard to see how Hamas becomes any kind of legitimate partner for Israel or for President Abbas for that matter as long as its fundamental view is that the person that you would achieve a peace agreement with doesn't have a right to exist.

KELEMEN: Casey said the State Department advised former President Carter not to meet Hamas officials, though Carter says no one at State told him not to go on the trip. And he had a long conversation ahead of time with Assistant Secretary David Welch. Besides, he said, there are, as Carter puts it, strong daily negotiations going on between Israel and Hamas with Egypt acting as a go-between.

Mr. CARTER: The Israelis are putting forward proposals to the Egyptians, Egyptians are sharing that with Hamas, Hamas gives them an answer. Egypt goes back to Jerusalem with the answer - that goes on everyday.

KELEMEN: Jimmy Carter says there's no way to negotiate a ceasefire or prisoner exchange without that sort of mediation effort. In a speech in Jerusalem today, he said actors with a stake in the conflict need to have a stake in the solution and that includes Hamas and its backer, Syria. He also cast doubts on the peace process the Bush administration launched last year in an Annapolis, Maryland.

Mr. CARTER: Since Annapolis, the peace proposals have regressed, more settlements have been announced, more road blocks have been established. The prison around Gaza has been tightened.

KELEMEN: Israeli settlements and restrictions on Palestinians are sure to be high on the agenda this week when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas comes to Washington to meet with President Bush on Thursday.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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