Peres: Carter damaged peace process

President criticizes former US leader's latest book in which he called Israel an apartheid state.

carter schalit 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  )
carter schalit 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Former US president Jimmy Carter was immediately criticized upon his arrival in Israel Sunday by President Shimon Peres, who told him that his plans to meet with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal were a "severe mistake." Peres - who, like Carter, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate - said Mashaal was an extremist and an illegitimate leader who had given orders to kill Israelis. Far from swaying Mashaal to change his ways, a conversation between the two men would harm the chances for peace, he said. Carter met on Sunday night with the parents of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit. In a closed-door conversation over tea in the King David Hotel, where the ex-president is staying, Noam Schalit asked Carter to help advance a deal to free his son, who has been held by Hamas for 33 months, when Carter meets with Mashaal later this week in Syria. "We spoke. We asked him to use his influence to help us," Schalit told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting. On Monday, Carter is slated to visit both Sderot and Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. But neither choice endeared him to the Israeli public. Carter, who brokered the 1979 peace deal with Egypt, was off to a chilly start, both because of the impending meeting with Mashaal and his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which compared Israeli actions in the West Bank with the racial oppression that once reigned in South Africa. So the aging diplomat in a gray suit, who slipped quietly into the lobby of the King David Hotel on Sunday evening, did not draw the attention of top Israeli politicians. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have all declined to meet with him, citing "scheduling problems." Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu did not want to meet with the ex-president, either. "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," Netanyahu adviser Uzi Arad told Israel Radio. Foreign Ministry officials, meanwhile, told the Post that Carter's visit placed Israel in a no-win situation, adding that the story of his visit here was sparking some interest in the US press, which was following to see what kind of reception he would receive. On the one hand, the officials said, a complete snub of the ex-president would not look good in the US, where Carter still enjoyed some clout and public stature by virtue of his former position. On the other hand, meetings with Israeli officials could be used by Carter to bash the Israel lobby in the US. He was likely to use these meetings to cast the Israel lobby in Washington as hysterical, one diplomatic official said, portraying his Jewish critics in the US as trying to outdo Israel in their criticism of him, since Israeli officials were willing to meet with him. Carter's upcoming talks with Mashaal has met with criticism in the US as well, including among State Department officials and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Such a meeting would be the first in two years between Hamas and a prominent American figure. But before heading off to Israel, Carter, in an interview with the ABC News program This Week, said he felt "quite at ease" about meeting Hamas members over the objections of Washington, because the Palestinian group was essential to a future peace with Israel. "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," he said. Although he said the meeting would not be a negotiation, 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," he said. The State Department has said it advised Carter twice against meeting representatives of Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist organization. "I find it hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is, in fact, the impediment to peace," Rice said Friday, after reports of the planned meeting surfaced. Carter said he had not heard the objections directly, although a State Department spokesman said earlier that a senior official from the department had called the former president. "President Carter is a private citizen. We respect his views," Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, said Sunday on This Week. "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," Hadley said. "The State Department made clear we think it's not useful for people to be running to Hamas at this point and having meetings." Asked whether it was right to meet a group that had not renounced violence or recognized Israel, Carter said, "Well, you can't always get prerequisites adopted by other people before you even talk to them." Pressure to drop the meeting has come from his own party. Democratic Reps. Artur Davis of Alabama, Shelley Berkley of Nevada, Adam Schiff of California and Adam Smith of Washington state wrote a letter to Carter, saying the meeting could confer legitimacy on a group that embraces violence. "I've been meeting with Hamas leaders for years," Carter said. Carter is among a growing group of critics who think that the policy of isolating Hamas has been counterproductive. Several months ago, a group of prominent former senior US officials - including Brent Scowcroft and Carter's own national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski - called for "genuine dialogue" with the Islamic group. During his visit to the region, Carter also plans to meet with the presidents of Egypt and Syria, as well as the king of Saudi Arabia. AP contributed to this report.