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Former President Jimmy Carter Defends Recent Meeting with Hamas Leaders

When U.S. President George W. Bush travels to the Middle East this week, he plans to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to restart peace negotiations. One group he will not meet with is Hamas, which the Bush administration considers a terrorist organization. Despite this, former U.S. President and Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter did meet with leaders of Hamas on a recent visit to Syria and Egypt. In an interview with VOA's Kane Farabaugh, he defends his meetings, and says that communication with all parties involved is the only way towards peace.

In fierce fighting last June, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, ousting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's more moderate Fatah group. Since then, Hamas has fired rockets into Israeli towns along the Gaza border.

Now, Israel and the U.S. say they will not meet with Hamas, which they label a terrorist group.

But on a recent visit to Syria and Egypt, former President Jimmy Carter did meet with Hamas leaders. In an interview with Voice of America, he gave his views on why peace has eluded Israel in recent years.

"The governments of the two countries I think are wrong in not dealing with Hamas and in not dealing with Syria,” Carter said. “There is no way that Israel can have peace with their next door neighbors the Palestinians or with Syria without at least talking to the people with whom they disagree. So, I believe that I was right in going."

President Carter's trip drew a firestorm of criticism, both in the United States and in Israel.

Lonny Nasatir, Chicago director of the Anti-Defamation League [ADL], a Jewish advocacy group, explains that criticism, "We feel that as a result of this, it actually gives Hamas legitimacy."

Mr. Carter clarifies, "My visit didn't legitimize or de-legitimize anybody."

One of the greatest achievements of former President Jimmy Carter's administration in the 1970s was a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that continues today.

Now, Mr. Carter points to several positive signs stemming from his talks with Hamas that he says could show a willingness to reach an agreement with Israel, "The day after I left Syria, Hamas proposed to Israel that they have a 60-day cease-fire in Gaza alone, which Israel rejected. So, not attacking Israel, and recognizing Israel's right to exist, Hamas agreed to both of those propositions," he said.

Hamas, according to Carter, also agreed not to block an independent Palestinian state if Fatah reaches a deal with Israel. But shortly after Carter's visit, other Hamas officials said the militant group would never recognize Israel.

Jewish groups such as the ADL - already angry at President Carter for his book "Palestine, Peace not Apartheid" - point to the mixed messages resulting from Carter's visit as a sign Hamas isn't serious about reaching a peace agreement.

"I think people that understand the issue, understand the complexity of this issue, understand the history of how Hamas got to power, what their central message has been and always has been, I think those people who understand that will understand why seeing them and giving them the impermada of legitimacy is a real problem," Nasatir said.

But American Jewish and Israeli opinion is not unanimous.

Israel's most prominent newspaper, Ha'aretz, in an editorial, lambasted Israel's government for refusing to meet with Mr. Carter during his trip. The newspaper said the former president is owed respect for his work for peace.

Nathan Brown is head of Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He says despite objections to Mr. Carter's efforts, the Israeli government is pursuing its own dialogue with Hamas.

"There's something that the whole flap about Carter's meetings obscured and that is that the Israelis were negotiating with Hamas already," he said. "They were doing it through Egyptian mediation. Carter's mediation was not new. The only thing it added was lots of TV cameras."

President Carter promises the criticism won't deter his efforts to help bring peace to the Middle East. His next step in that process is encouraging the next U.S. President to make it a top priority of their administration.

"My hope is that the next president will announce on inauguration day, that he or she is going to begin immediately to try to bring peace to Israel and it's neighbors," said Mr. Carter.