By Joel Greenberg
JERUSALEM _ Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is getting a cool reception in Israel, where he arrived on Sunday at the start of a nine-day Middle East tour that he said would likely include a meeting with Hamas leaders in Syria.
Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who brokered the first Arab-Israeli peace accord, is being shunned by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. However, Carter met on Sunday with President Shimon Peres, whose position is ceremonial.
Carter also plans to travel to the West Bank and to meet the leaders of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan on what the Atlanta-based Carter Center called a “study mission” to support Middle East peace efforts.
A spokesman for Olmert declined to comment on the Carter trip, but other Israeli officials said the reason for the cold shoulder here was Carter’s plan to meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, a move that has been criticized by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and are boycotting the militant Islamic group, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction. U.S. and Israeli policy is to isolate Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and pursue peace efforts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who favors a negotiated settlement with Israel.
One Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that high-level meetings here with Carter before he goes on to meet Hamas leaders would have “sounded like we are sending a message,” when “we don’t want anything to do with them.”
Carter, who met on Sunday with the parents of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas militants in Gaza, told the ABC News program “This Week” that “it’s likely that I will be meeting with the Hamas leaders” in Syria, where he is to see President Bashar Assad.
“I think 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,” Carter said. “I think someone should be meeting with Hamas to see what we can do to encourage them to be cooperative.”
Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas official in Syria, said the group “welcomes the request” from Carter to see Mashaal, and that the meeting would take place Friday. It would be the first public contact between a prominent American and Hamas officials since Rev. Jesse Jackson met Mashaal in Syria in 2006.
On Friday, Rice criticized Carter for the planned meeting. “I find it hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is, in fact, the impediment to peace,” she said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the department had counseled Carter against the meeting because it went against U.S. policy.
Peres, whose contacts with Carter go back years, felt he could not boycott a former U.S. president, but told him that meeting Mashaal would be “a grave mistake,” said Ayelet Frish, a spokeswoman for Peres.
Carter brokered the 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel that led to a peace treaty a year later. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
The publication two years ago of his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” provoked fierce criticism from American Jewish groups and some fellow Democrats because of its description of Israeli policies in the occupied territories as “a system of apartheid” in which two populations on the same land are completely separated, with the Israelis dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their human rights.
In another development Sunday, Olmert met Abbas in the latest of their periodic meetings to oversee peace talks. Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Abbas, said he had urged Olmert to respond to Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire with militants firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip.
© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
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