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Why Israel and Hamas are meeting with Jimmy Carter

The former president met with Israeli settlers as well as top Hamas leaders on a week-long tour of the region that wrapped up Tuesday in Gaza.

By Erin CunninghamContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2009

In Gaza on Tuesday, former US president Jimmy Carter (l.) pressed senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (r.) to accept international conditions for negotiations.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

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Gaza City, Gaza

Amid softened tensions between Israel and the US after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech on Sunday, a familiar face is edging his way into the melee: Jimmy Carter. On Tuesday, the former president capped a week-long tour of the Middle East by meeting senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip.

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Mr. Carter has been shunned in the past by both the Bush administration and Israeli leaders, who criticized his efforts to engage the militant Palestinian group that he says is crucial to any lasting Arab-Israeli peace. But analysts say Carter's ties with the more like-minded Obama administration, which has taken a firmer stand with Israel on some issues, may bolster his effectiveness as a regional peace broker.

"There is a big difference between Carter operating under Bush [and] Carter operating under Obama," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general. "His efforts had little value during the eight years of the Republicans. They have greater value now. He has access and connections with the leaders of [the] new America."

Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to Mr. Haniyeh, also acknowledges Carter's ties with Obama and potential to act as a go-between with the US, which considers Hamas to be a terrorist group. As a result, Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has not met with Hamas leaders.

"He is close to President Obama and nobody in his type of position understands the conflict with all its problems like he does," says Mr. Yousef in a phone interview. "I think he will give Obama the information and analysis he needs to address this conflict in a proper way and to restore the image of America in the region after two decades of failed diplomacy."

Hamas reportedly thwarted two bombs targeting Carter's vehicle on Tuesday, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz and news agencies.

Carter to Hamas: Accept US conditions for talks

On Tuesday in Gaza and last week in the Syrian capital, where Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal lives, Mr. Carter urged the militant group ruling Gaza to accept the conditions for talks laid out by the international community, including renouncing violence, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and recognizing the Jewish state's right to exist.

"I called on Hamas leaders that I met with in Damascus and I told Hamas leaders in Gaza today to accept these conditions," said Carter to reporters after meeting with Haniyeh for the first time. "They made several statements, and showed readiness to join the peace [process] and move towards establishing a just and independent Palestinian state."

Haniyeh, who welcomed the "new spirit" of the US as evidenced in Obama's June 4 Cairo speech, said Hamas will support a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, provided it would be under "full Palestinian sovereignty."

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