JERUSALEM – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Monday that Hamas — the Islamic militant group known for its suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israel — is prepared to accept the Jewish state's right to "live as a neighbor next door in peace."
Hamas is also ready prepared to accept the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, provided it is approved in a Palestinian referendum, or by a Palestinian government chosen in new elections, Carter said.
However, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip said Hamas wouldn't be bound by a referendum's results.
In the past, Hamas officials have said they would establish a "peace in stages" if Israel were to withdraw to the frontiers it held before the 1967 Mideast War. But it has been evasive about how it sees the final borders of a Palestinian state, and has not abandoned its official call for Israel's destruction.
Carter relayed his message in a speech in Jerusalem after meeting two days last week with top Hamas leaders in Syria. The speech capped a nine-day visit to the Mideast designed to break the deadlock between Israel and Hamas militants who rule Gaza.
Israel considers Hamas to be a terrorist group and has shunned Carter during his visit because of his meetings with Hamas' supreme chief, Khaled Mashaal, and other group leaders. In his speech in Jerusalem, Carter urged Israel to negotiate directly with Hamas, saying failure to do so was hampering peace efforts.
"We do not believe that peace is likely and certainly that peace is not sustainable unless a way is found to bring Hamas into the discussions in some way," he said. "The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working."
Syria harbors Hamas' exiled leadership in its capital, Damascus, and supports the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas who warred with Israel in 2006.
Carter said Hamas wouldn't undermine moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel, as long as the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum. In such a scenario, he said, Hamas would not oppose a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas leaders "said that they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders" and they would "accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace," he said.
The borders he referred to were the frontiers that existed before Israel captured large swaths of Arab lands in 1967 — including the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza said Hamas' readiness to put a peace deal to a referendum "does not mean that Hamas is going to accept the result of the referendum."
Such a referendum, he said, would have to be voted on by Palestinians living all over the world. They number about 9.3 million, including some 4 million living in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Refugees would be far less likely to approve a peace deal that does not allow them to return to homes in what is now Israel. A vast majority of Israelis see the repatriation of millions of Palestinians as a threat to the Jewish state's survival, because Jews eventually could be outnumbered. Any treaty is unlikely to include it.
Israel, which evacuated Gaza in 2005, has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there and in much of the West Bank. But it has resisted Palestinian demands that it return to its 1967 frontiers.
Both the Israeli and U.S. governments disapprove of Carter's overtures to Hamas, which they consider to be a terrorist organization. Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not meet with Carter in Israel because he did not wish to be seen as participating in any negotiations with Hamas.
During his trip, Carter met only with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Eli Yishai, one of several deputy prime ministers. Peres scolded Carter for meeting with Hamas, but Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said he was willing to meet with Hamas leaders to discuss a prisoner exchange.
Israel says Carter's talks embolden Palestinian extremists and hurt Palestinian moderates as they try to make peace with the Jewish state. Abbas, who rules only the West Bank, is in a bitter rivalry with Hamas.
"The problem is not that I met with Hamas in Syria," Carter said Monday. "The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with someone who must be involved."
Carter said direct communication between Israel and Hamas could facilitate the release of a captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who has been held in Gaza for nearly two years.
Israel agrees in principle to trade 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Schalit, but after back-and-forth talks through Egyptian intermediaries, has approved only 71 of the specific prisoners that Hamas wants freed, he said.
Carter said Hamas has promised to let Schalit send a letter to his parents to assure them he is in good health, and said the militants "made clear to us that they would accept an interim ceasefire in the Gaza Strip."
However, Carter said Hamas rejected his specific proposal for a monthlong unilateral truce.
"They turned me down, and I think they're wrong," he said.
In his comments Monday, Carter said Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has "regressed" since Abbas and Olmert renewed negotiations at a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.
He faulted Israel for continuing to build on disputed land the Palestinians want for a future state and for its network of roadblocks that severely hamper Palestinians traveling in the West Bank.
"The prison around Gaza has been tightened," he said, referring to Israel's blockade of the territory since the Hamas takeover.
While in Syria, Carter also met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Speaking about the possibility of renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria, he said Syria wants the U.S. to play a "strong role" in bringing the two sides together. In recent days, both Olmert and Assad have confirmed putting out feelers to each other about resuming negotiations.
Talks broke off in 2000 after Syria rejected Israel's offer to return the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 war and later annexed.