Carter: Rocket attacks 'despicable'

On Sderot visit, former president expresses hope for truce, earlier, says he'll discuss Schalit with Mashaal.

Carter Sderot 224, 88 (photo credit: )
Carter Sderot 224, 88
(photo credit: )
Former US president Jimmy Carter called on Monday for Hamas and Syria to be brought into the peace process and for the America to open a dialogue with Iran. "I think it is absolutely crucial that in a final dreamed-about and prayed-for peace agreement for this region, Hamas be involved and Syria be involved," said Carter as he addressed a technology conference hosted by The Marker at Airport City outside of Tel Aviv. When asked about the Iranian threat, Carter added that his government must "talk directly to Iran." In spite of his Nobel Prize for Peace and his role during his presidency in brokering the 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt, Carter said that his work in the Middle East remained undone. "One of the un-met needs of my life for the last 30 years has been to help bring permanent peace and security to this country, and also peace and justice to the surrounding communities," said Carter. He spent Monday explaining that he was simply here on a fact-finding mission for his center. But throughout the day he spoke of the role he could play in working toward a cease-fire, in the release of Cpl. Gilad Schalit from his Hamas kidnappers and as a intermediary between Israel, Hamas and Syria. He told MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz) during a meeting Monday morning that he thought the release of Schalit was a realistic possibility. Since his arrival in Israel Sunday on a nine-day visit to the region, Carter has been harshly criticized for his plans to meet later this week with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Syria. He also intends to talk with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak all declined not to meet with Carter during his visit, citing scheduling conflicts. On Monday afternoon, Carter defended his planned Mashaal meeting, which is contrary to both Israeli and US policy. "The policy does not apply to me. I only represent the Carter Center and my own family. I am not on this trip in a negotiating or mediating role. The purpose is to ascertain the facts of how peace and justice can come to people who are deprived of it," said Carter. "I will be meeting with all the factions of the Palestinians, which is also controversial, I know, but I believe that in my experience... that those [required] to be involved in a peace agreement need to be involved in the discussions leading up to the agreement," said Carter. He said that government representatives could not meet with them, but he could act as a "communicator" between them, the United States and Israel. By the time he returns briefly to Israel at the start of next week, Carter said, he hoped that Israeli leaders would "deign to meet with [him]" so he could convey whatever proposals or ideas that might come from [Hamas]. It is a step, Carter said, that he wished someone had taken when his administration refused to meet with former PLO leader Yasser Arafat until Arafat recognized Israel and renounced violence against it. "That policy was imposed on me by a public commitment that Henry Kissinger made to Israel and to the world," Carter said. He said it has been his experience in other global conflicts, such as that in Nepal, that a terrorist organization could change into a more moderate group that participated in the democratic process. Carter also defended his record in support of Jewish causes. He said he had persuaded the former Soviet Union, which at the time prohibited Jewish emigration, to allow some 25,000 Jews to leave the country. He also formed a commission to build the US Holocaust Museum. Carter also spoke of his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, which has been harshly criticized for comparing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to racial oppression in South Africa. Carter said he knew the title Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid had upset people. But the emphasis should have been on the word "not," he said. The book did not refer to what took place in Israel, but rather to the situation in [the Palestinian territories]. "That has been a controversial thing, and I realize that," said Carter. One must understand, he added, the book was written when the peace process was stalled. He had hoped, Carter said, to refocus interest on the issues. In speaking of his own history in the peace process, Carter made a back-handed criticism of US President George W. Bush, when he said that when he was president, he hadn't waited until his last year in office, but embarked on the peace process during his first days. He credited his success in that peace treaty with the "courage and sacrifice" of the "heroic" leaders former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. "They not only had the confidence and trust of their people, but they were also willing to take a chance and to make bold decisions" that were unpopular even among their supporters, he said. In pursuit of peace today, Carter said, he wanted the leaders on both sides to display that same "determination and willingness to take a chance." He added the US government needed to play a stronger role. But during his visit to Sderot, which has been under rocket attacks from Gaza Palestinians for the last seven years, a number of residents were not happy about Carter's role in the region these days. Stepping out from behind the ice cream freezer in his small store, one Sderot resident yelled at Carter, "Mr. President, we are not apartheid here!" But Carter had no problem speaking harshly against the rocket attacks earlier in Sderot, when he was shown the stockpile of hundreds of rocket bits that have been collected and stored in the back of the city's police station. "I think it's a despicable crime for any deliberate effort to be made to kill innocent civilians, and my hope is there will be a cease-fire soon," Carter said.