Carter talks peace between Palestine and Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) – With his Mideast shuttle winding down Monday, Jimmy Carter picked up the phone in Jerusalem and called the Hamas boss in Damascus one more time.

Halt the rocket fire on Israel for a month, without preconditions, and gain some international goodwill, the former president said he told Khaled Mashaal, supreme leader of the Islamic militant group.

But Mashaal, who met with Carter for seven hours in Damascus over the weekend, said no.

“I did the best I could,” Carter said of his last-minute attempt to change Mashaal’s mind on the rockets. “They turned me down, and I think they’re wrong.”

This meant Carter was leaving the region without concrete concessions from Hamas.

Mashaal made upbeat statements about peace with Israel, and Carter said Monday that Hamas is willing to accept Israel as a “neighbor next door” one day.

Hours later, however, Mashaal sent mixed messages. He stressed that while the militants would accept a state in the 1967 borders, meaning alongside Israel, the group would never outright recognize the Jewish state.

Analysts said Hamas apparently decided to send off Carter largely empty-handed, despite the possibility he might pave an opening to a hostile West, because it prefers doing business with leaders in the region.

Egypt has been shuttling between Israel and Hamas for nearly two years to try to broker a cease-fire, a prisoner swap and an opening of Gaza’s border crossings.

Defending his trip, Carter said peace in the region will only be possible if Israel and the U.S. start talking to Hamas and Syria, which hosts and supports several militant groups. He also called on the Bush administration to push harder to renew Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

“The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working,” Carter, who brokered a historic 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, said.

He said he won a written pledge from Hamas’ five-member politburo, led by Mashaal, to accept any peace deal with Israel, even if Hamas disagrees with some of the terms, as long as it’s approved in a Palestinian referendum.

Carter said Hamas leaders told him they’re also ready to accept the Jewish state’s right to one day “live as a neighbor next door in peace.” Since its founding 21 years ago, Hamas has carried out scores of suicide attacks in Israel and has fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza at Israeli border towns.

The pledge obtained by Carter did not reflect a new Hamas position, though it’s significant that it was made in writing. Hamas leaders have said in the past they would establish “peace in stages” if Israel were to withdraw to the borders it held before the 1967 Mideast war. Hamas has been evasive about how it sees the final borders of a Palestinian state, and has not abandoned its official call for Israel’s destruction.

The Hamas promise does not say who would participate in a peace referendum. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be far more likely to approve a deal than exiles in camps in Lebanon and Syria, especially if a treaty does not affirm the “right of return” of refugees to homes in what is now Israel.

A vast majority of Israelis see the repatriation of millions of Palestinians as a threat to the Jewish state’s survival, because Jews eventually could be outnumbered.

Mashaal praised Carter for ignoring the broad international boycott of Hamas, which is viewed by Israel and the West as a terrorist organization. “That doesn’t mean we agree on all things,” Mashaal said of Carter. “But we appreciate this brave voice, coming from the West, and coming from America.”

Despite the warm words, Hamas rejected Carter’s appeal to halt rocket fire on Israel without preconditions for a month and to speed up the release of a captured Israeli soldier, as a show of good faith.

Mashaal wouldn’t budge on the rockets, even during a last-minute phone call by Carter on Monday morning, two days after their last meeting.

Carter said that in that call, Mashaal insisted on a reciprocal cease-fire.

“I told them (Hamas), ‘Don’t wait for reciprocation, just do it unilaterally,'” Carter said. “‘This would bring a lot of credit to you around the world, doing a humane thing.'”

Also, a leader of the Hamas military wing, said attacks on Israel would continue.

The leader, identified as Abu Jandal, told the Hamas-linked newspaper Al Risala that an attack on an Israeli position on the Gaza border on Saturday was just a warmup. In the attack, Hamas militants blew up two jeeps carrying hundreds of pounds of explosives, wounding 13 soldiers.

“The previous attacks were just a walk in the park,” he told the newspaper.

Concerning a prisoner swap, Carter said the current indirect talks between Israel and Hamas, via Egypt, were making only very slow progress. He said Israel is willing, in principle, to free 1,000 prisoners for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006. However, so far Israel has only approved 71 names from a list of 450 prisoners suggested by Hamas.

At this pace, Carter said, the negotiations could drag on for years.

He proposed that Hamas agree to release women, minors and Hamas legislators in the first phase to speed up the swap, but was turned down.

In Washington, the State Department said there is no indication that Hamas wants peace with Israel. “It is pretty clear to us that there is no acceptance on the part of Hamas of any kind of negotiated settlement,” deputy spokesman Tom Casey said.

Casey said there had been contradictory statements from Hamas officials over whether they would accept the result of a referendum on a peace deal.

Still, the State Department is open to hearing from Carter about the talks, Casey said.

Carter said he would write a trip report and send it to the Bush administration.