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Will Carter's Hamas foray bear fruit?

The former president said Monday that the Islamist militants are prepared to accept the right of Israel to 'live as a neighbor next door in peace.'

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2008



Jerusalem

After defying the US-led boycott on Hamas by meeting its leaders in Damascus, Syria, former President Jimmy Carter told Israelis in Jerusalem Monday that the Islamist militants assured him they would respect a peace treaty ratified by the Palestinian public.

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Despite this stated shift in Hamas's rejection of a peace treaty with Israel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate cautioned that he is not about to coax Israel and Hamas together in the same way he shepherded Israelis and Egyptians to their watershed peace treaty in 1979.

"I don't ever intend to be a mediator between any of the disputing groups … that's not my goal," he said in a speech. "I don't have any expectation that I would be an acceptable spokesperson for either the US or Israel."

At the end of his Middle East tour, the remark highlights a key question about President Carter's freelance diplomacy: What value is there to talks with groups like Hamas – called a "terrorist organization" by the US and Israel – when the messenger himself does not speak on anyone's behalf?

Israel and Hamas already have a channel of talks via Egypt, which is being used to negotiate a prisoner swap to free Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit from nearly two years of captivity in Gaza. The Egyptians are also thought to be mediating talks on a cease-fire and the reopening of the border between Gaza and Egypt.

Carter, who was snubbed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the trip, reported that Hamas rejected his suggestion that it declare a unilateral truce with Israel and free Corporal Shalit in return for the release of jailed Hamas political leaders and Palestinian women and children prisoners. But, he said, Hamas did agree to forward a letter from Shalit to his parents and to a two-stage prisoner exchange in which the captured soldier would be transferred to Egypt in between waves of prisoner releases by Israel.

Carter also insisted that Hamas would accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an accord negotiated by the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas if it were put to a referendum or a Palestinian legislature is elected with a majority in support.

While Hamas leaders have said they support a long-term truce with Israel along the 1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza, they have consistently rejected a peace treaty.

"This is enormous," says Gershon Baskin, copresident of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. "It's the first indication that Hamas is turning its back on its own covenant of never recognizing Israel."

But Magnus Ranstorp, the author of several books on Hamas, is doubtful that the Islamists have made the ideological shift.

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