Harsh words from an Israeli ambassador to the UN are not in themselves surprising. Usually they target representatives of Israel's Arab neighbors at UN debates. But the latest round of verbal attacks took an unusual turn at a lunch for the press late last week. This time the target was a former president of Israel's closest ally, the United States. Jimmy Carter is a "bigot," Ambassador Dan Gillerman told reporters following the ex-president's meetings with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Damascus on April 18 and 19. Carter "went to the region with soiled hands and came back with bloody hands after shaking the hand of Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas," the ambassador added. Now Israeli officials are battling it out over Gillerman's remarks. Some blame Gillerman; others target Carter. Meretz MK Yossi Beilin said Friday that Gillerman should be recalled to Israel, following his remarks. "It is Gillerman's prerogative to criticize Carter," Beilin said. "However, Israel is perpetually indebted to a person who saved many Israeli lives by bringing peace with Egypt with his own hands." NU/NRP MK Zvi Hendel, on the other hand, called on Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to show support for Gillerman. "Beilin, who has led hallucinatory peace processes over the past decade, is the last person who can preach to someone who is saying the truth," Hendel said. Carter "is an overt anti-Semite," he added. Gillerman made his comments on Carter at an hourlong briefing sponsored by The Israel Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. The envoy was questioned about problems facing Israel in a discussion that included Iran, Gaza, settlement construction, Syria and the upcoming Durban II conference. Carter met with Mashaal for seven hours in Damascus to negotiate a cease-fire with Gaza's Hamas rulers. On Monday, Carter called Mashaal to try to get him to agree to a one-month truce without conditions, but the Hamas leader rejected the idea. The ambassador called last weekend's Carter-Mashaal encounter "a very sad episode in American history." He said it was "a shame" to see Carter, who had done "good things" as a former president, "turn into what [I] believe to be a bigot." During Carter's visit, Gillerman said, Hamas "was shelling our cities and maiming and injuring and wounding Israeli babies and Israeli children." The ambassador also noted that Hamas was armed and trained by Iran, whose president has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." "The real danger, the real problem is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the real threat is Iran," he said. "Israel has no problem with Iran, Iran has a problem with us," said Gillerman, warning that Teheran's construction of a nuclear reactor was moving at a faster pace than diplomatic efforts to stop it. Gillerman spoke with reporters from around the world at the Times Square offices of a New York law firm on the same day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Washington meeting with President George W. Bush. The ambassador said he was "quite optimistic" about the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, because Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had met more times than any previous leaders of the two sides. "I believe they've gone deeper and further than any other Israeli or Palestinian leader, and I believe that there is a very good chance [for a settlement]," he said. Gillerman also was asked about the arrest last week in New Jersey of Ben-Ami Kadish, the 84-year-old man accused of passing US weapons program secrets to an Israeli agent a quarter-century ago. The retired US military engineer faces charges linking him to the same now-defunct Israeli intelligence agency that used Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. Gillerman called it "a very old matter." "It pertains to something that may or may not have happened 25 years ago" and would be decided when Kadish went to trial, he said. In the wake of the Pollard case, the ambassador said, Israel made a pledge not to spy on the United States, "and that is something which I know that we have honored completely." The ambassador declined to comment on US government reports that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance before it was bombed by Israeli planes in September, but called Syria a "destabilizing influence" in the Middle East. "You see Syria's hosting, very hospitably and warmly, over 10 terror organizations in Damascus," Gillerman said, adding that the country also supported Hizbullah in Lebanon. "Basically, Syria and Iran, together with Hamas and Hizbullah, are the main axes of terror and evil in the world," he said.