Bush, candidates oppose Carter-Hamas chat

President Carter speaks about his book, 'Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,' at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., on Jan. 23. (Mike Lovett)

President Carter speaks about his book, ‘Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,’ at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., on Jan. 23. (Mike Lovett)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – The Bush administration has counseled Jimmy Carter not to meet with Hamas officials.

The Carter Center, the group founded by the ex-president that promotes peace and development worldwide, confirmed Thursday that he would tour the Middle East.

Hamas officials in Damascus said Carter would meet with them Saturday while in the Syrian capital, but Carter spokesmen would not confirm that announcement.

Sean McCormack, the spokesman for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said senior State Department officials had advised Carter not to meet with Hamas leaders.

“It’s a terrorist organization and responsible for the deaths of many, many innocent civilians,” McCormack said.

The Bush administration has tacitly approved Egyptian negotiations with Hamas to end the violence on the border between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. However, the administration rejects direct negotiations as lending the Islamic fundamentalist group legitimacy, which it considers premature before Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

The three main presidential contenders also said that a Hamas-Carter meeting would be a mistake.

Carter originally was to have made the tour as part of “The Elders,” a group of senior statesmen including Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, and Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general.

Members of that group decided Tuesday to postpone their tour, reportedly under U.S. pressure.

“The Elders have been exploring ways that they can contribute to peace and to the world’s understanding of the complex issues involved in the Middle East conflict,” a statement said. “They had planned a visit to the region in April to meet and listen to representatives from government, civil society, business and the public in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The Elders will continue consultations with key leaders in the region and outside with the purpose of developing a comprehensive report, but have decided to postpone their visit.”

The cancellation led Carter to go ahead with the tour under his center’s auspices. Reportedly he will be joined by Stephen Solarz, a former U.S. congressman who is Jewish.

Carter, the president who brokered the breakthrough 1978 Israel-Egypt peace, has stirred controversy more recently with his views on the Israel-Arab conflict. He suggests that Israeli intransigence is the main obstacle to peace and has likened Israel’s settlement policies to apartheid.

The leading presidential candidates all said that it would be a mistake for Carter to meet with Hamas.

“Senator Obama does not agree with President Carter’s decision to go forward with this meeting because he does not support negotiations with Hamas until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements,” said a spokesman for campaign of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). “As president, Obama will negotiate directly with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.”

Obama has been endorsed by much of the former president’s family.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the campaign of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Obama’s rival in the Democratic primary, said she would look to Israel before dealing with Hamas.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization who is responsible for the deaths of countless innocents and almost daily rocket attacks against Israel,” Singer told JTA in an email. “Hillary respects former President Carter but disagrees with his decision. She would not meet with Hamas without coordinating with Israel.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Clinton’s top Jewish surrogate, noted recent statements by the Hamas leadership diminishing the significance of the Holocaust.

“A meeting with the former President of the United States lends credibility to terrorists and Holocaust deniers worldwide,” she said in a statement. “In light of Hamas’ continuing violence and calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, I strongly urge President Carter to reconsider his decision.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Crystal Benton, also issued a statement criticizing the idea.

“John McCain believes it’ a serious and dangerous mistake for Americans of any stature to meet with an organization like Hamas that is committed to he destruction of Israel and regularly conducts terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis,” Benton said.

Republicans in Congress called on Carter not to make the trip. Carter would likely meet with Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader considered to represent the hard line within the Islamic movement, although in recent days Meshaal has endorsed the idea of a cease-fire.

“This type of meeting will only be misconstrued in the region as a sign of legitimacy for Hamas terrorism,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) protested the reports of the visit by reading the names of 26 Americans who had been killed in Hamas attacks in Israel and in disputed lands.

“Mr. Carter, these voices from the grave beseech you – do not meet with the man who ordered their deaths,” Kirk said.

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