Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was told by U.S. officials and Israel that his plan to meet the top leader of Hamas, a group both countries consider a terrorist, is a bad idea.
Carter – who helped broker Israel's first peace treaty with Arab neighbor Egypt in 1979 – was given the cold shoulder in Israel this week during his visit. No top Israeli policymaker met with Carter, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, did meet Carter on Sunday, and told him he thinks talking to Hamas was a "very big mistake," according to The Associated Press.
However, Carter defended his decision to meet with Hamas on Monday. "I think it is absolutely crucial that in the final and dreamed-about and prayed-for peace agreement for this region that Hamas be involved and Syria will be involved," Carter told a business conference outside Tel Aviv.
"I can't say that they will be amenable to any suggestions, but at least after I meet with them I can go back and relay what they say, as just a communicator, to the leaders of the United States," he said.
Carter plans to meet with Hamas' top leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Syria on Friday. The former U.S. president said he aims to get Meshaal to agree to a "peaceful resolution of differences, both with the Israelis…and also with Fatah," according to Reuters. He also intends to press Hamas to return three captured Israeli soldiers.
Some U.S. leaders agree with Carter's approach to the Mideast peace problem, supporting the idea that current U.S. policies of isolating Hamas is counterproductive.
But others have criticized him for "obstructing" and undermining the current Middle East peace negotiations by the Bush administration.
"The position of the government is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and we don't negotiate with terrorists. We think that's a very important principle to maintain," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, according to AP. "The State Department made clear we think it's not useful for people to be running to Hamas at this point and having meetings."
Last fall, the Bush administration after much effort was able to get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to negotiate a peace treaty that would create a Palestinian state. Leaders aim to complete the deal by the end of 2008, or before Bush steps down from office.
Hamas is not involved in the Israel-Palestinian Authority negotiations.
"I think there's no doubt in anyone's mind that if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process," Carter contended on ABC on Sunday.
A big problem is Hamas does not recognize the right of Israel to exist and seeks its destruction.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, worries Carter's meeting with Hamas will do "substantial damage" to U.S. Middle East policy. Bolton said Carter's meeting with Hamas will give it legitimacy.
"I think that it's unacceptable in any circumstances. It's even worse, now, with the administration trying to promote progress between Arabs and Israelis through the Annapolis process," Bolton contended, according to OneNewsNow.
"I don't dispute that any American can criticize a policy they disagree with; that's basic to our freedoms in this country," Bolton said. "But for a former president actively to sabotage the policy – not merely to criticize it, but to go out of his way to sabotage it – is nearly unprecedented. I can't think of another example like this in recent history."
Meanwhile, Republican nominee-in-waiting Sen. John McCain, said in a statement: "It is a grave and dangerous mistake for an American leader to meet with a terrorist organization like Hamas.
"Engaged in a campaign that deliberately targets innocent Israeli civilians, Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel," he added. "President Carter is wrong to meet with Hamas, a terrorist group that has also killed innocent Americans."
Carter's popularity in Israel and among Jewish Americans has plummeted since his book, published two years ago, compared Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza to apartheid in South Africa. His planned meeting with Mashaal only adds fuel to existing tension and feelings of resentment among Israeli.
A recent survey showed that most U.S. Christians support the state of Israel out of a sense of "moral and biblical obligation." The survey by the Joshua Fund, a pro-Israel evangelical organization, found that evangelical Christians were the most supportive of Israeli causes, with nearly 90 percent saying they felt a "moral and biblical obligation" to back Israel, and 62 percent said that Israel alone should posses control of Jerusalem.
Evangelical Christians also had the largest number of respondents who said they opposed a Palestinian state, believing it would give rise to terrorism.
Non-evangelical Protestants and Catholics were also revealed to be very pro-Israel, though their support was slightly lower.
Eighty-four percent of Protestants and 76 percent of Catholics said they felt a "biblical obligation" to support Israel.
A majority of Protestants also said they agreed that Jerusalem should remain Israel's undisputed capitol, while a lower but still high number of Catholics agreed.
Carter said he'll meet with Hamas leader Nasser al-Shaer at a West Bank reception on Tuesday, according to AP. Shaer, who formerly was the Palestinian government's deputy prime minister and education minister, is a leading Hamas member from the West Bank. He was not considered as part of the internationally recognized Palestinian government after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.