Published April 08, 2008
NEW YORK CITY – Former President Jimmy Carter is reportedly preparing an unprecedented meeting with the leader of Hamas, an organization that the U.S. government considers one of the leading terrorist threats in the world.
The Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat reported Tuesday that Carter was planning a trip to Syria for mid-April, during which he would meet with Khaled Meshal, the exiled head of the Palestinian terror group Hamas, on April 18.
Deanna Congileo, Carter’s press secretary, confirmed in an e-mail to FOXNews.com that Carter will be in the Mideast in April. Pressed for comment, Congileo did not deny that the former president is considering visiting Meshal.
“President Carter is planning a trip to the Mideast next week; however, we are still confirming details of the trip and will issue a press release by the end of this week,” wrote Congileo. “I cannot confirm any specific meetings at this point in time.”
Meshal, who lives in Syria to avoid being arrested by the Israeli government, leads Hamas from his seat in Damascus, where he is a guest of Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The State Department has designated Hamas a "foreign terrorist organization," and some groups hold Meshal personally responsible for ordering the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack once said of the prospect of meeting with Meshal, "That's not something that we could possibly conceive of."
Some Carter critics called the latest reports typical of the ex-president.
“It’s about par for the course from President Carter, demonstrating a lack of judgment typical of what he does," said John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. "To go to Syria to visit Hamas at this point is just an ill-timed, ill-advised decision on his part."
“I’m not surprised that Carter would do this, as he has been supporting Palestinian extremism for many years,” said Steve Emerson, director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a watchdog group.
Carter would be the first Western leader of his stature to meet with the Hamas chief. Though Meshal met with Clinton officials in the 1990s, the Bush administration has sought to isolate Hamas, enforcing rigid sanctions on its government in Gaza and refusing to meet with its leaders unless it recognizes Israel and abandons terror.
“I think this [visit] undermines the U.S. policy of isolating Hamas,” said Emerson. “I think this encourages Europeans to further dilute their sanctions against the Hamas government.”
"When you put the prestige of a former president of the United States in a meeting with one of its terrorist leaders, you’re giving it a legitimacy and currency it never had,” said Bolton.
But Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a non-profit advocacy group, said Carter's efforts demonstrate he's a true partner in peace.
“I think if true, this report would indicate that President Carter is willing to travel any road in search of peace,” he said. “I think President Carter would only undertake such a mission if he believed that something could be achieved in terms of peace and reconciliation in the region.”
Hooper added that because of Carter's reputation among Palestinians he might be able to bring some pressure to bear.
“Obviously President Carter has a great amount of credibility in the region because of his past efforts seeking peace internationally,” Hooper said.
The Al-Hayat report stated that Carter would be traveling in his capacity as head of the Carter Center, and not in his capacity as a former president.
“That’s a distinction that’s absurd,” said Emerson.
“Maybe he’ll give up his pension, but he’s always a former president,” said Bolton.