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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.

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Why Israeli settler met with Carter

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In Israel, whose government also considers Hamas a terrorist organization, Carter has on recent trips met with a cool reception – or no reception. But this time, he visited the Knesset and met with Israel's security cabinet. Even Shaul Goldstein, a prominent West Bank settler, agreed to meet him.

"Nobody in his position ever agreed to meet settlers. People won't meet settlers," says Mr. Goldstein, who heads the regional council of the Gush Etzion settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"Carter is not the enemy," he says. "Maybe he's talking to the enemy. But Carter is not a terrorist, and he's not part of Hamas. The main goal is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is very important in the future to meet this kind of person."

In a surprising move, Carter said the settlements should be allowed to remain part of Israel.

'Not a giant step for mankind, Mideast peace'

The official charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel, and it has provoked Israeli anger by firing rockets across the Gaza border and kidnapping an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Both Israelis and Palestinians see potential for Carter to facilitate a prisoner exchange. Mr. Shalit's parents reportedly gave him a letter to deliver to their son, and Hamas expressed hope that he could help free Palestinians.

"We are encouraging the talks to reach an honorable prisoners' exchange deal with Israel," said Haniyeh. "We welcome all the efforts ... in which Mr. Carter can help in order to reach a prisoners' exchange deal."

But foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor downplays Carter's role. "It's not a giant step for mankind and for peace in the Middle East," he said, calling it a "humanitarian perk" Shalit and his parents.

The key, Mr. Palmor says, is to look at tangible results.

"It's very simple. Are there tangible results from bringing together people from different spheres and making them listen to each other?" he asks. "If the answer is yes, if you can point to concrete projects that have seen the light of day, and real improvement – however modest – in Israel-Arab relations, then this is a positive action. If there are no tangible results, then we should either be patient and wait, or conclude that these efforts are completely inefficient for the moment."

Hamas: 'Carter is the messenger we trust'

Carter, who said he was moved almost to tears by the situation in Gaza, promised to bring a "report" of the destruction he saw to Obama, as well as to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

"Someone as high-profile as Carter, coming to the region to meet with Hamas and the government of Ismail Haniyeh but also [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas, is very positive," says Mr. Yousef. "He can convey messages to President Obama about the situation in Gaza and in the West Bank and the consequences this blockade has had on our lives. Carter is the messenger that we trust – and that the world community trusts."

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City and Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed reporting.