Former US president Jimmy Carter on Sunday defended his plan to meet with Hamas leaders for peace talks as he kicked off a trip to the Middle East, amid criticism from Washington and Israel.
Carter, who in his 2006 book likened Israeli policies to ‘a system of apartheid’, described the inclusion as ‘very important’ because it helps us hear the views of Hamas leaders.
“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process,” he said in an interview with ABC, which was pre-recorded and aired on Sunday.
The former US president arrived in Israel on Sunday as part of a nine-day trip to the Middle East in order to study the situation for peace talks.
“We’ll be meeting with the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudi Arabians, and with the whole gamut of people who might have to play a crucial role in any future peace agreement that involves the Middle East,” Carter said of his trip.
Carter is to be shunned in Israel by senior Israeli officials including premier Ehud Olmert, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and war minister Ehud Barak. Israeli officials have cited ‘scheduling problems’ as the reason.
But the main reason is apparently Carter’s reported plan to meet with Hamas political Chief Khalid Mashaal in Syria.
“I’ve not confirmed our itinerary yet for the Syrian visit, but it’s likely that I will be meeting with the Hamas leaders,” Carter said in the interview.
On Thursday, the US State Department had also advised Carter against meeting with Hamas officials.
Carter, who reportedly plans to meet exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in Syria, said he viewed Hamas’s inclusion in peace talks as “very important” and stressed he was not travelling as an official US negotiator.
“It’s very important that at least someone meet with the Hamas leaders to express their views, to ascertain what flexibility they have, to try to induce them to stop all attacks against innocent civilians in Israel and to cooperate with the Fatah as a group that unites the Palestinians,” Carter told ABC news.
“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbours, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process,” he said in the interview, which was pre-recorded and aired on Sunday.
Carter arrived in Israel Sunday and held talks with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem before meeting the parents of an Israeli soldier who was abducted in June 2006 by Gaza militants and is being held by Hamas.
Israel and Hamas have been holding secret, indirect negotiations to secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit as part of a prisoner exchange deal.
Carter’s study mission that runs until April 21, will also take him to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, his Atlanta-based Carter Center said.
Media reports that Carter plans to hold talks with Meshaal in Damascus sparked a furore in the United States. Carter’s office would neither confirm nor deny the reports, and the former president has remained vague about the details.
Israel on Sunday urged the US ex-president not to meet Meshaal.
Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip last June after routing Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
However, the 83-year-old Carter pointed out during the ABC interview that he was not travelling in any official capacity.
“I’m not going as a mediator or a negotiator,” he said. “I’ve been meeting with Hamas leaders for years.”
Carter said his most recent talks came after Hamas’s win in January 2006 elections. At that time, he said Hamas expressed willingness to declare a ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank and allow Abbas to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.
“I intend to find out if these are their prevailing thoughts now,” he said.
“Carter is going to visit places we do not wish to associate ourselves with. He also never made an official request to meet Olmert,” a senior government official told AFP.
The US State Department on Thursday advised him against meeting Hamas because Washington supports Abbas in new peace talks with Israel and backs the Jewish state’s bid to isolate the Islamists.
Carter’s 2006 book “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid” infuriated some Jewish and zionist groups who accused him of racism and anti-Semitism.