Carter Defends Upcoming Meeting With Hamas in Syria

Former President Jimmy Carter said he feels "quite at ease" about meeting Hamas militants over the objections of Washington because the Palestinian group is essential to a future peace with Israel.

Speaking from Katmandu, Nepal, where he and a team of observers from the Carter Center monitored national elections, Carter said the U.S. and other parties should not require "pre-requisites" before meeting with the terror group. Hamas has not renounced violence, regularly bombs Israeli towns near its stronghold of Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel's existence.

"Well, you can't always get prerequisites adopted by other people before you even talk to them," Carter said in an interview taped Saturday but aired Sunday on ABC News' "This Week."

"I feel quite at ease in doing this," he said. "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."

Video: Controversial Carter, Hamas Meeting 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.

Several State Department officials, including the secretary, Condoleezza Rice, criticized his plans. 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.

The State Department says it advised Carter twice against meeting representatives of Hamas, which Washington lists as 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.

"The State Department made clear we do not think it's useful for people to be running to Hamas," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said after Carter's appearance. Hadley added the U.S. as well as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has sent a "very clear message to Hamas about what they need to do" to be included in peace talks.

Although he said the meeting would not be a negotiation, Carter 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.

Carter said he'd be meeting Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudi Arabians and others "who might have to play a crucial role in any future peace agreement that involves the Middle East." According to the Carter Center, Carter's "study mission" was taking him to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan this week.

Carter, a broker of the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his conflict mediation as president and since.

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 also said he would oppose a U.S. Olympic boycott and hopes all countries will join in the Beijing games. Carter boycotted the Moscow Winter games in 1980 in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"That was a totally different experience in 1980, when the Soviet Union had brutally invaded and killed thousands and thousands of people," he said, rejecting the idea of boycotting the Beijing games to protest China's crackdown in Tibet. He did not address whether just the opening ceremonies should be boycotted.

In Nepal, where the Dalai Lama has lived since his ouster from Tibet, incomplete election returns show the country could turn from rule by royal dynasty into a democracy with former Maoist rebels in a strong position.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.