/ 21 April 2008

Carter: Hamas would conditionally accept peace

Former United States president Jimmy Carter said on Monday Hamas leaders told him they would accept a peace agreement negotiated by their rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, if Palestinians approved the deal in a vote.

In a speech, Carter said Hamas ”said they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians … even though Hamas might disagree with some terms of the agreement”.

”It means that Hamas will not undermine Abbas’s efforts to negotiate an agreement and Hamas will accept an agreement if the Palestinians support it in a free vote,” he said.

But Carter said he was told by Hamas that a referendum on a peace deal must be preceded by reconciliation between the group and Abbas’s Fatah faction. Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah in fighting in June.

A Hamas official in the Gaza Strip also referred to a series of preconditions raised by the Islamist group for assenting to a deal with Israel.

Sami Abu Zuhri said Palestinian refugees living in exile must be included in the voting — a condition that could complicate approval of a deal.

Abu Zuhri also noted that Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel, would regard any future Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as ”transitional”.

Unlike Abbas, who sought a Palestinian state side-by-side with the Jewish state, Abu Zuhri said Hamas’s outstanding position not to recognise Israel’s right to exist remained unchanged despite its acceptance of a state in 1967 borders.

Carter and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal discussed in Damascus on Friday and Saturday how the Islamist group, shunned by Israel and the West, could be drawn into a peace plan and drop its opposition to Abbas’s negotiations with the Jewish state.

Carter said Hamas turned down his proposal for a 30-day unilateral ceasefire with Israel but Egypt would continue its efforts to mediate a truce.

‘Not working’

Carter, who helped negotiate a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, said excluding Hamas ”is just not working” and was stirring violence along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s willingness to meet officials from Hamas has drawn criticism from Israel and the United States, which both regard it as a terrorist group.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to see Carter, who has been critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, during a regional visit that began on April 13.

”We believe that the problem is not that I met Hamas in Syria,” Carter said in his address to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. ”The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with these people, who must be involved.”

He said ”there’s no doubt that both the Arab world and the Palestinians, including Hamas, will accept Israel’s right to live in peace within the 1967 borders”.

Abbas wants to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under a peace deal the United States hopes can be reached by the end of this year.

Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still controls its borders and has tightened its restrictions on the enclave since Hamas’s takeover.

Before his speech, Carter held talks with Israeli Cabinet minister Eli Yishai of the religious Shas party, a partner in Olmert’s coalition, on efforts to negotiate the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in 2006.

Carter said in the address Hamas had agreed to pass a letter soon from the soldier, Gilad Shalit, to his parents.

Egypt is trying to mediate a wider prisoner exchange under which Israel would release Palestinian inmates in return for the tank crewman, a deal that could include easing Gaza’s blockade.

Carter said he was told by Egypt’s intelligence chief that Israel had agreed to free 1 000 prisoners, but had accepted only 71 names on a roster presented by Hamas. — Reuters