Meshal to announce decision over Carter truce proposals Sunday
Hamas declares new legitimacy after two high-profile meetings with Carter on Shalit, Gaza fighting.
Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal said Saturday that he will announce his organization's decision over former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's truce proposals on Sunday.
Meshal also said that Hamas' Damascus-based leadership was consulting with the organization's Gaza leadership over the issues that came up in Friday's meeting.
Hamas engaged in an internal debate Saturday over proposals put forward by Carter for a unilateral cease-fire with Israel and more political flexibility, Palestinian politicians said.
Carter left the Syrian capital Saturday for Riyadh after an early morning meeting with Khaled Meshal.
Carter and Meshal held more than four hours of talks Friday night that discussed how the Islamist group could be drawn into a Middle East peace plan and drop its opposition to peace talks between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah faction.
Carter demanded that Hamas stops firing rockets on Israel while he pursues efforts with Israel and the West to lift the siege on the Gaza strip, which is ruled by Hamas, politicians familiar with the meetings said.
"Carter also asked Meshal to adopt more flexible public statements and talked to him as a leader of a national liberation movement, not as the terrorist Israel and America try to depict him as being," one of the sources told Reuters.
"Meshal is a first among equals in Hamas. He has to secure agreement from the rest of the Hamas leadership," he added.
Carter defied U.S. and Israeli opposition to meet twice this weekend with Meshal and his deputy, two men the U.S. government has labeled terrorists and Israel accuses of masterminding attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians.
Thr former president is the most prominent American to hold talks with Meshal, whose group claimed new legitimacy from the meeting along with two other sessions the Nobel laureate held with Hamas leaders in the Middle East this week.
"Political isolation [of Hamas] by the American administration has begun to crumble," Mohammed Nazzal, a top figure in Hamas' political bureau, told The Associated Press after Friday's meeting at Meshal's Damascus office.
Meshal's deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said the meetings centered on crossings on the Gaza-Israel border, abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israeli siege on the Strip and a potential cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Meanwhile, Egypt said Friday it was making good progress in its own efforts to negotiate a tacit cease-fire, including a prisoner exchange, between Israel and Hamas.
Another senior Hamas official in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to represent the group publicly, described the meetings as warm.
But he said Carter did not receive a response to either of the two requests the former president made: that Hamas halt its rocket attacks against Israel, and agree to a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai to discuss a prisoner exchange.
Former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar and former Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, two Hamas officials living in Gaza who met Carter in Cairo last week, are due in Damascus later Saturday for consultations with the leadership in exile about Carter's proposals.
Nazzal said that Carter will be informed of Hamas' response in the coming days.
But underscoring the impression that Carter did not win any concessions, Hamas said Friday that Shalit would never see the light of day until Palestinian prisoners are also released in an exchange.
Previous efforts to broker a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel involving the soldier, have floundered. A Hamas official said Friday that Shalit would until Israel released Palestinian prisoners held in its jails.
Hamas is open to the release of Shalit, "but not without a price", Nazzal said.
"This meeting was not a courtesy call, concrete proposals were discussed and we admire Carter for making this effort. The discussions were frank and direct," Nazzal said.
Carter's convoy arrived at Meshal's office for the meeting under tight security, and reporters were prevented from getting near the site. The meetings were closed to media, and Carter was not available for comment. He left Damascus mid-morning Saturday, flying to Saudi Arabia for the next leg of his Mideast tour.
But Carter, who brokered the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, has defended what he calls his personal peace mission. He says Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, must be engaged in order to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The controversy over his visit highlights two different approaches to foreign policy. Some, like Carter, believe that is impossible to resolve a conflict without engaging all parties, even those responsible for attacks on civilians. Others, including the Bush administration, contend that such meetings give credibility to hard-line militants and allow them to play for time when they are not serious about peace.
Echoing criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the trip, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack suggested Friday that Carter had opened himself up to exploitation by both Hamas and the Syrian government.
"We find it very odd that one would encourage to have a conversation between the Israeli government and Hamas, which doesn't even recognize the right of the Israeli government to exist," McCormack said. "Is that really the basis of a conversation?"
Several members of Congress also urged Carter not to meet Hamas leaders, saying it would confer legitimacy on the group behind dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed some 250 Israelis.
"We have a policy in this country about Hamas. And he is just deliberately undermining that policy, and it's wrong," Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., told Fox News on Friday, calling for the State Department to revoke the former president's passport.
Friday's meeting, which followed a session between Carter and Syrian President Bashar Assad, was the first public contact between a prominent American figure and Hamas officials since the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with Meshal in Syria in 2006.
The U.S. government has no contact with Hamas after designating it a terrorist organization in 1995 - an official label that means any financial or business transactions with the group are illegal. The government has also blacklisted Meshal and Abu Marzouk, making it illegal to conduct any transactions with them.
Marzouk, who attended both meetings with Carter, has been accused of organizing a network of Islamic charities to funnel money to Hamas. He spent two years in prison in a New York jail after his name appeared on a list of people suspected of terrorist activity. He was deported in 1997.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Bush, called Carter's meetings with Hamas officials a strategic and tactical mistake.
"Palestinians believe they cannot implement a peace agreement without Hamas, but they also understand that they can't reach such an agreement with Hamas in power," Kurtzer said.
Martin Indyk, a U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, said the problem with trying to bring Hamas into the negotiations is it will force Israel out.
Israel brands Hamas a terrorist organization and has accused Meshal of masterminding the kidnapping of Shalit near Gaza two years ago. Israel has also blamed Meshal and the group's Damascus-based leadership of directing suicide bombings such as the September 2004 attacks that killed 16 Israelis in the southern city of Be'er Sheba.
Israel tried to kill Mashaal in 1997, when agents sprayed him with poison on a street in Amman. Jordan's late King Hussein, who had signed peace with Israel in 1994, forced Israel to send the antidote that saved his life.
Afterward, Jordan expelled Meshal to Qatar as the kingdom's ties with Hamas deteriorated, and he moved to Damascus in 1999.
Yishai, the deputy prime minister, was the only Israeli minister to meet Carter when he visited Israel and the Palestinians territories earlier this week. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he did not meet Carter during his visit to avoid creating the impression that he was negotiating with Hamas.
Carter met senior Hamas officials from Gaza in Cairo on Thursday and asked them to halt rocket attacks against Israel. And in the West Bank on Wednesday, he embraced a Hamas representative, angering Israelis.
Though Israel's government refuses to deal with Hamas, Carter said Thursday he knows some Israeli government officials are quite willing to meet the militant group.
Yishai said Friday he asked Carter this week to arrange a meeting with Hamas to discuss a prisoner exchange. He said he wanted to try to win the release of Shalit.
Hamas official Mushir Masri, in a fiery speech Friday to thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza, said the meetings with Carter were proof that Hamas was not a terrorist group but a national liberation movement.