Israeli leaders snub Carter over Hamas

The former president had planned to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

.JERUSALEM (AP) – Former President Jimmy Carter brokered the first Israeli-Arab peace deal, but he’s getting a cool reception in Israel during his latest visit to the Mideast.

Israeli leaders are shunning the globe-trotting peacemaker for planning to meet with Khaled Mashaal, the head of Israel’s archenemy Hamas, and comparing the Jewish state’s policies to apartheid.

A schedule released by the Atlanta-based Carter Center showed no plans for the former president to meet any of Israel’s key players: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or Defense Minister Ehud Barak during this week’s visit, which began Sunday.

The only high-ranking official on Carter’s schedule was Israel’s ceremonial head of state, President Shimon Peres. The 83-year-old former U.S. leader held a closed meeting with Peres shortly after arriving Sunday.

A senior Israeli official said “scheduling problems” was the official reason given for the high-profile snub – even though Olmert recently took time to chat with “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller.

But the real reason for the cold shoulder is Carter’s plan to meet with Mashaal when his Carter Center delegation travels later this week to Damascus, Syria, the Israel official said.

Israel’s leader are not publicly criticizing Carter out of respect for his former position as U.S. president, the official added. He spoke on condition of anonymity because his explanation went beyond the official position.

Ahead of his Mideast trip, Carter defended his reasons for wanting to engage Hamas and said he feels “quiet at ease” about meeting with Hamas militants.

“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 told ABC News “This Week” in a broadcast aired Sunday.

Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction and has carried out dozens of suicide bombings that have killed more than 250 Israelis. Israel has no contacts with the Islamic militant group, whose violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June has undercut newly revived efforts by Israel and the Palestinians to strike a final peace deal.

Several State Department officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and others from the Bush administration have criticized Carter’s plans to meet with Mashaal.

“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,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said Sunday on ABC. “The State Department made clear we think it’s not useful for people to be running to Hamas at this point and having meetings.”

But Carter is among a growing group of U.S. critics who say shunning enemies is counterproductive. Several months ago, a group of prominent former senior U.S. officials – including Carter’s own former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski – called on the U.S. to engage in “genuine dialogue” with Hamas, not isolate it.

In Syria, senior Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal has said Hamas “welcomes the request” from Carter to meet with Mashaal. He said the meeting would take place Friday.

Carter said the meeting would not be a negotiation, but he outlined distinct goals.

“I think that it’s very important that at least someone meet with the Hamas leaders to express their views, to ascertain what flexibility they have, to try to induce them to stop all attacks against innocent civilians in Israel and to cooperate with the Fatah as a group that unites the Palestinians, maybe to get them to agree to a cease-fire – things of this kind,” Carter said.

Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work in mediating conflicts, while president and under the auspices of the Carter Center. In 1979, he brokered the landmark accord between Egypt and Israel, for which Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin were awarded that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

But the goodwill Carter earned here was all but swept away two years ago with the publication of his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which compares the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories with the racial segregation and oppression that once reigned in South Africa.

Jewish groups and some fellow Democrats strongly objected to the book and more than a dozen members of the Carter Center’s advisory board resigned in protest.

In a later afterword to his book, Carter criticized the lack of “balanced debate” in the U.S. about the Middle East and warned officials against being “seen as knee-jerk supporters of every action or policy” of the Israeli government.

In recent years, Carter has embarked upon “a crusade of hate against Israel,” Uzi Arad, an adviser to parliamentary opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio.

“There is no doubt that Jimmy Carter as a former president should be greeted as a matter of protocol, but it does not mean that the prime minister, the foreign minister and certainly the opposition leader have to meet him,” Arad said.