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Former United States president Jimmy Carter, who arrived in Israel Sunday, rejects the criticism he's been subjected to over his planned meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. According to Carter, peace cannot be achieved without talking to all the relevant people, and he will use the meeting to promote efforts to release Gilad Shalit and to uncover the fate of soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Carter told Haaretz Sunday in an exclusive interview that he intends to check Meshal's willingness to accept the Arab League peace initiative. Carter says that acceptance of this plan by Hamas would be a very positive step.

Carter said ignoring a large segment of the Palestinian people would make it impossible to achieve peace.

Carter also said no one from the U.S. State Department had tried to dissuade him from holding the meetings, and that they were aware of his schedule.

"Before I went to Nepal, I put in a call for Condoleeza Rice just to have a personal conversation with her about my plans," Carter said. "I went over the entire itinerary. She could not take my call because she was traveling in Europe, so she asked David Welch, who is the assistant secretary of state. We had a 20-minute conversation, which was very pleasant, never a single negative word and not a single request that I modify my itinerary."

Carter said he understood the pressures on the presidential candidates to release statements critical of his meetings with Hamas. "I forgive them all and I understand their motivations," he said.

The prime minister and the head of the opposition are not meeting with you, and President Shimon Peres' bureau said he intends to lecture you about your attitude toward Israel. How much does the criticism bother you?

"I'm disappointed, but not distressed. The most important single foreign policy goal in my life has been to bring peace to Israel, and peace and justice to Israel's neighbors. I have done everything I could in office and since I left office to do that. The security of Israel is a paramount and integral issue. The things that I have done, the things that I have written, this long trip that we've been planning for months is, in my own opinion, about consummating that goal.

"In a democracy, I realize that you don't need to talk to the top leader to know how the country feels. When I go to a dictatorship, I only have to talk to one person and that's the dictator, because he speaks for all the people. But in a democracy like Israel, there is a wide range of opinions and that counterbalances the disappointment that I have in not meeting with the people shaping Israeli power now in the government."

As the one who headed the team of observers in the election in the territories in January 2006, were you aware that Israel was opposed to elections, out of concern that Hamas would win, but that President Bush insisted they take place as planned?

"It was obvious to me that the Israelis did not want the elections to go forward and that Fatah did not want the elections to go forward, but that the U.S. did want the elections to go forward. Hamas' position is that they are perfectly willing for [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen to represent them in all direct negations with the Israelis, and they also maintain that they will accept any agreement that he brokers with Israelis provided it will be submitted to the Palestinians in a referendum. Hamas is also willing to accept a mutual cease-fire with Israel."

In contrast to active American involvement in negotiations between Israel and Egypt, the U.S. is not involved today in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Do you believe the parties can reach an agreement without American intervention?

"I'm afraid it can't work without American input. At Camp David. I wrote every word of every proposal. In other arenas in which I have mediated, quite often I have just played a communication link."

This week you will visit Damascus. Do you believe that President Assad has an interest in renewing talks with Israel and that he can be distanced from what your president calls the "axis of evil?"

"In the long term, I have no doubt that Syria has to be involved in negotiations. I have known the president of Syria since he was a college student. If he feels that the U.S. considers him an enemy, he is much more inclined to cling to Iran. We don't talk to the Cubans, we don't talk the Iranians and we don't talk to lots of people. But I believe that when we start a peace effort, all of the players that ultimately will have to be involved in this agreement ought to be involved in the negotiations to reach that agreement.

"I do not agree with the policy [about the "axis of evil"] or with the unwillingness to talk to someone who disagrees with you unless he agrees with all your prerequisites. I agree with the recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton committee, which recommended that we do include Iran and Syria in the determination of the Iraqi war.

"When I was elected [president], there was no pressure on me to even initiate a peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In fact, Israel's Arab neighbors were considered to be despicable and permanent enemies. Egypt had been to war with Israel 4 times in 25 years. I decided that the only way to make peace was to meet with everyone. I met with [Hafez] Assad in Geneva, Switzerland, I met with Sadat, I met with Rabin, King Hussein, all of them, because I didn't see a way of achieving a peaceful solution without involving all the people - on a respectful basis - who would have to pay a crucial role in the final decision."

Do you suspect that Menachem Begin misled you in on the Palestinian issue, and that he intended from the outset to conclude a separate peace with Egypt?

"Begin committed to withdraw Israeli military and political forces from the occupied territories and then also to give the Palestinians full autonomy. I had written in the text 'to give Palestinians autonomy,' and he insisted that we put in 'full autonomy.' Begin was extremely courageous, honest and fair.