Jimmy Carter: 'I'll Meet Hamas Because Someone Has to'

Former US president Jimmy Carter on Sunday defended his plan to meet with Hamas leaders as he kicked off a trip to the Middle East, amid criticism from Washington and Israel.

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 traveling 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 neighbors, 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 captured in June 2006 by Gaza militants and is being held by Hamas.

Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement have been holding secret, indirect negotiations to secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit as part of a prisoner exchange deal.

"Mr Carter promised me that he will travel to Damascus to meet Meshaal and do all he can to secure my son's release in a prisoner exchange," his father Noam Shalit said.

Carter's "study mission" that runs until April 21, will also take him to the occupied West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, his Atlanta-based Carter Center said.

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.

"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.

Israel urged the US ex-president not to meet Meshaal.

"Such a meeting would be all the more shameful as Jimmy Carter symbolizes peace," senior defense ministry official Amos Gilad told army radio.

He was referring to Carter's role as the architect of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and his Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

"Meeting with Hamas leaders would show support for this movement without the minimal conditions set by the international community for such a dialogue, namely a recognition of Israel's right to exist and the accords reached in the past with the Palestinians," Gilad said.

Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip last June after routing Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States.

However, the 83-year-old Carter stressed in the ABC interview that he was not traveling 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 2006 parliamentary 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to shun Carter, as the two were not scheduled to meet during his four-day visit to the region.

"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 official said.

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