Carter Center won't confirm rumors ex-U.S. leader to meet Hamas officials
Center: Jimmy Carter's visit to region next week is for 'study mission;' U.S. advises against meet with Hamas.
The Georgia-based Carter Center announced on Thursday that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will visit the Middle East next week, but would not confirm reports that he was to meet with senior Hamas officials during his trip to Syria.
Senior Hamas official in Syria, Mohammed Nazzal, said Thursday that Carter planned meet the group's politburo chief Khaled Meshal, who lives in exile in Damascus. Rumors of the meeting began circulating in media on Wednesday,
Nazzal told the Associated Press on Thursday that Carter had sent an envoy to Damascus earlier, requesting a meeting with the militant group's officials, including Meshal.
Hamas welcomed the request, said Nazzal, who is a member of Hamas' political bureau, and added that the meeting with Carter would take place on April 18.
Carter Center spokeswoman Deanna Congileo confirmed there was a planned trip by Carter to the Middle East next week, but could not give any specific detail on eventual meetings or the itinerary.
A press release from the Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center said the former president was to lead a study mission to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, as part of his ongoing effort to support peace, democracy, and human rights in the region.
The statement said the visit would take place from Sunday until April 21.
"This is a study mission, and our purpose is not to negotiate, but to support and provide momentum for current efforts to secure peace in the Middle East," said Carter, according to the statement. "Our delegation has considerable experience in the region, and we go there with an open mind and heart to listen and learn from all parties."
Meanwhile in Washington, the U.S. State Department said it had advised Carter against meeting any representative of Hamas.
"U.S. government policy is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and we don't believe it is in the interest of our policy or in the interest of peace to have such a meeting," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
He said the message had been conveyed directly to Carter in a phone call during the past week by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch.
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, also expressed concern over such a meeting. "The unintended consequences of such a meeting would be to embolden terrorists and undermine the cause of peace," he told Reuters.
A Carter-Meshal meeting would be the first public contact in two years between a prominent American figure and officials of Hamas, branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.
In 2006, U.S. veteran civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson met Meshal during a visit to Syria.
According to another Hamas official in Syria, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who is the deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, Hamas and Carter will discuss the fate of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In an interview with the Kuwaiti Al-Qabas newspaper on Sunday, Abu Marzouk said Shalit would not be returned alive to Israeli authorities if Israel failed to release 350 Palestinians it holds prisoner.
Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip affiliated with Hamas captured Shalit in 2006. Negotiations toward a prisoner swap for Palestinians in Israeli custody have so far failed.
Tensions between Washington and Damascus have grown increasingly chilly lately, with the U.S. criticizing the Syrian human rights track record and accusing President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime of trying to undermine stability in Iraq and undercut Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy. U.S. President George W. Bush in February expanded earlier standing U.S. sanctions against Syrian senior government officials and their associates deemed responsible for public corruption.
The United States has also complained Syria supporting militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and has failed to stop guerrillas from crossing the border into Iraq.
Meshal lives in exile in Syria, where he heads Hamas' political bureau and is believed to be its highest leader. He fears an assassination by Israel, which tried to kill him in 1997, when agents sprayed him with poison on a street in Amman but he survived.