Carter Meets With Hamas Chief In Exile, Defying Israel and U.S.

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 19, 2008

JERUSALEM, April 18 -- Former president Jimmy Carter followed through on a planned meeting with the exiled leader of Hamas on Friday, despite U.S. and Israeli protests that the session would give legitimacy to a group they consider a terrorist organization.

Khaled Meshal, who is accused of masterminding kidnappings and suicide bombings, met with Carter, a Nobel Peace laureate, in Damascus, Syria, where Meshal has lived for nearly a decade. The meeting was one of the most notable exchanges to date between Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006, and a prominent Western political figure.

Israel and the United States have consistently opposed any direct contact with Hamas, an armed Islamist movement that has vowed to destroy the Jewish state. But a spokesman for Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai said Friday that Yishai had asked Carter to arrange for him to meet with Hamas to discuss a possible prisoner exchange. Yishai, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has said he believes it is his religious duty to try to win the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped nearly two years ago and has been held in Gaza since.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Yishai was speaking for himself. "It is not the position of the prime minister," Regev said. "The government is against any dialogue with Hamas."

Despite that policy, Israel has been trading proposals with Hamas this spring for a possible cease-fire. Egypt has served as the intermediary, and the United States has encouraged the process behind the scenes. Those talks have snagged on the issue of whether the West Bank would also be included in the cease-fire, with Hamas arguing that it must be and Israel balking.

Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since it seized power there last June. The Palestinian Authority, led by the rival Fatah party, continues to hold sway in the West Bank.

Carter, 83, has said that Shalit was at the top of his agenda for his meeting with Meshal and that he also wanted to try to lower tensions in and around Gaza. Hamas regularly fires rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, while the Israeli military stages frequent incursions into Gaza. Violence flared in the strip Wednesday, when 21 Palestinians -- many of them civilians -- and three Israeli soldiers died.

The State Department had warned Carter not to meet with Hamas, saying it would be counterproductive. But Carter has said the group's involvement in the peace process is inevitable.

"You can't have an agreement that must involve certain parties unless you talk to those parties to conclude the agreement," he said in a speech at the American University in Cairo on Thursday. "You have to involve Hamas."

Carter was snubbed by virtually all of Israel's top leaders, Olmert included, when he visited this week. "Were Jimmy Carter to have met with me, and two days later with Khaled Meshal, it could have created a facade of negotiations between us and Hamas," Olmert said in an interview with Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Hamas, by contrast, was eager to see Carter. The former president, who brokered peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979, met with the group's leaders three times this week. "This will be a chance to change the reputation of Hamas in the world, including in America," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Barhoum said Meshal would push Carter to help end the economic lockdown that Israel has maintained in Gaza since last June.

Carter also met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Friday. He is due to meet King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah II of Jordan over the weekend before returning to Israel on Monday.

Carter's meeting with Meshal occurred on a day when Israel revealed plans to build 100 new homes in the West Bank. Israel has said it is allowed to expand existing West Bank settlements as long as it does not construct new ones. The Palestinians say expansion is a violation of the 2003 "road map" to peace, and the United States has described such construction as "unhelpful" to negotiations. But Friday's announcement of new construction in the West Bank settlements of Ariel and Elkana is just the latest in a string of such disclosures by Israel in recent months. Both settlements are deep inside the West Bank, territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have bogged down since they were relaunched in Annapolis last November. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is visiting President Bush in Washington next week, and Bush is due in Israel next month for the Jewish state's 60th birthday celebrations.

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