Rice Criticizes Carter for Reported Meeting Planned With Hamas

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized former President Jimmy Carter on Friday for his plans to meet in Syria with the leader of the Palestinian group Hamas during a trip next week to the Middle East.

Rice, speaking to reporters in Washington, affirmed that Hamas is a terrorist organization that has been unwilling to "come into line with international standards concerning the Middle East."

She then blamed Hamas for a coup against the Palestinian Authority and said, "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's comments come a day after a State Department spokesman said Carter's meeting with senior Hamas officials would not be "in the interest of peace."

Carter originally was slated to travel throughout the Mideast with a group of statesmen and philanthropists including Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, but Carter now will be traveling without the group.

FOXNews.com first reported Tuesday on an item in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat that said Carter was preparing an unprecedented meeting with Khaled Meshal, the exiled head of Hamas who lives in Damascus.

A senior Hamas official confirmed reports of the meeting Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

The official, Mohammed Nazzal, told the AP that Carter sent an envoy to Damascus requesting a meeting with Hamas leadership, including Meshal, and that Hamas "welcomed the request." The meeting will take place on April 18, he said.

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 President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

A news release posted Thursday on the Carter Center's Web site says President Carter is leading a study mission to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan from Sunday through April 21 as part of the center's "ongoing effort to support peace, democracy and human rights in the region."

Carter would be the first Western leader of his stature to meet with Meshal. 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.

The two founders of Hamas, the cleric Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, were killed by Israeli air strikes in 2004.

FOX News' Joseph Abrams and Nina Donaghy contributed to this report.