Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrapped up a week-long trip to the Middle East Monday by telling a Jerusalem news conference that Hamas Islamic militants are prepared to accept a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

Jimmy Carter says Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and other senior members of the Islamic militant group he met with in Damascus have told him they are willing to accept a peace agreement negotiated by the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas - if the agreement is approved by Palestinians in a referendum.

"They said they would accept a Palestinian state under 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians," Mr. Carter said. "And they would accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace, provided the agreements negotiated by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas were submitted to the Palestinians for their overall approval - even though Hamas might disagree with some terms of the agreement."

Mr. Carter made his comments at a Jerusalem news conference wrapping up a nine-day trip to the Middle East. The former U.S. President was shunned by Israeli officials but he met with Palestinian moderates, Hamas militants and the leaders of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Israel strongly condemned, and U.S. officials expressed displeasure at Mr. Carter's meetings with Hamas. Mr. Carter, who says his visit is strictly private, says Israel and Hamas are already in third-party talks aimed at trying to reach a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. He says there is no point in criticizing his talks with Hamas because the group will have to be dealt with eventually.

"We believe that the problem is not that I met with Hamas and Syria, the problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with these people who must be involved," he said.

Mr. Carter says direct talks between Israel and Hamas could speed up a proposed Palestinian prisoner release. Hamas has submitted the names of hundreds of prisoners Israel holds that Hamas wants released in return for freeing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit - who Mr. Carter says will be allowed to send letters to his family. But Mr. Carter says Hamas rejected his call for a month-long unilateral truce with Israel.

Israeli officials say Mr. Carter's meetings with Hamas leaders undermine Palestinian moderates they are seeking to reach a peace agreement with. A spokesman for Israel's prime minister said Israel would have no comment on Mr. Carter's remarks.

A spokesman for Hamas in the Gaza Strip told news agencies that Hamas would only support a referendum on a peace agreement with Israel if all Palestinians - including those in exile were allowed to vote on it. About four million Palestinians live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and about another five million live in exile.

The spokesman also said that Hamas would view any Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "transitional," and that Hamas has no plans to change its position of not recognizing Israel's right to exist.