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Carter: Hamas Ready To Live Beside Israel

But Carter said that in his negotiations, Hamas leaders referred to the charter dismissively as "an ancient document" and that they agreed to abide by any peace deal forged by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas if the Palestinian people approve it. That could be accomplished either through a referendum or by a vote of the legislative council.

The talks resulted in a written agreement. An English version that Carter released reads in part: "If President Abbas succeeds in negotiating a final status agreement with Israel, Hamas will accept the decision made by the Palestinian people and their will in a referendum monitored by international observers . . . even if Hamas is opposed to the agreement."

The terms, however, give the group substantial room to later back out. Hamas officials, for instance, have said that any referendum must include Palestinians living in exile worldwide -- something that could make the vote logistically impossible.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who met with Carter in Damascus, told reporters there Monday that the group would not formally recognize Israel even if it accepts a peace deal that implicitly acknowledges Israel's existence.

"We accept a state on the June 4 line with Jerusalem as capital, real sovereignty and full right of return for refugees but without recognizing Israel," Meshal told reporters, referring to the borders before the 1967 war, according to the Reuters news agency. Meshal is known as one of the most militant members of the group's leadership.

At present, Gaza is the focus of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Hamas and allied groups have been using Gazan territory to launch rockets into southern Israel. The group has also staged attacks against Israeli soldiers stationed along the border. Israel conducts frequent raids inside Gaza and has imposed a tight economic blockade.

Carter, who brokered the 1979 deal that established peace between Israel and Egypt, said he was disappointed Hamas did not agree to a cease-fire, but that the group would continue trading proposals with Israel through Egypt, which is mediating. Israel does not officially acknowledge those talks.

Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas foreign affairs adviser, said the group would not sign a truce unless Israel also agreed. "It's unfair for the victim to quit defending himself and to allow the aggressor to continue killing," he said.

Hamas, which won 2006 Palestinian elections, has a factionalized leadership split among people living in Gaza and the West Bank, in exile and in Israeli prisons. While some Hamas leaders advocate an uncompromising line against Israel, others have been more willing to bargain, resulting in contradictory signals from the group about its intentions.

Monday was no exception; Carter said Meshal told him he personally favored a unilateral cease-fire, but could not achieve a consensus. Yousef, who was part of the Hamas group that met with the former president in Cairo, described Carter as brave for meeting with Hamas. "He represents the real conscience of the American people, not like George Bush and his one-sided vision for peace," Yousef said.

Bush has called for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by the end of his term early next year. The United States hosted a conference in Annapolis last November to try to get the talks moving.

After meeting with Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank, Carter said he believed that those talks have gone nowhere, and that the prospects for peace have actually "regressed."

"More settlements have been announced. More roadblocks have been established," he said. "The prison around Gaza has been tightened."

Carter said in the interview that failed talks could spark an uprising. "If you don't give people hope that their plight will be alleviated, then violence is almost inevitable," he said.

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