Carter Calls on U.S. to Start Direct Dialog With Iran

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, defending a contentious plan to meet Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, said yesterday that he hoped to become a conduit between the militant group, Washington and even Israel.

Carter also called on the Bush administration to embark on direct talks with the Iranian regime in order to resolve the issue of Tehran's nuclear program.

Carter told Haaretz during an interview last night that he thought the best option was dialogue with Iran.

If he had the opportunity to meet with the U.S. president and the secretary of state, he said, he would tell them to begin direct talks with the Iranians, in order to dispel legitimate concerns.

If these talks failed, then it would be necessary to use military force, but this point had still not been reached, Carter said.

If a particular group feels the U.S. is boycotting it, why should it seek peace with it? Carter added.

The former U.S. president vowed to continue his efforts to mediate between the sides, saying that he planned to visit the West Bank and Egypt and to meet with all Palestinian factions.

He acknowledged that the move is controversial, but said that anyone who has been involved in peace agreements needs also to be involved in efforts that would lead to peace.

"Isolating Hamas is counterproductive," Carter had said earlier.

"I think it is absolutely crucial that in the final and dreamed-about and prayed-for peace agreement for this region that Hamas be involved and Syria be involved," Carter told the Haaretz-sponsored Com.Vention business conference.

"I can't say that they will be amenable to any suggestions, but at least after I meet with them I can go back and relay what they say, as just a communicator, to the leaders of the United States," he said.

Earlier yesterday, Carter visited the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target of Qassam rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and met the city's mayor, Eli Moyal, and other municipal officials.

"I think it's a despicable crime for any deliberate effort to be made to kill innocent civilians, and my hope is there will be a cease-fire soon," Carter said during his visit.

Moyal, however, was not encouraged by Carter's initiatives.

"I don't believe that Carter can bring calm and peace, and I think his meeting with Meshal is arbitrary and will do nothing to advance Israel's interests," Moyal said, referring to Carter's plans to meet with Meshal in Damascus this week.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office had no immediate comment.

Carter said yesterday that a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit would top the agenda of his discussions with Meshal.

In talks with MK Yossi Beilin in Jerusalem yesterday, Carter said he believed a release deal was possible and intended to make it a central aspect of his discussions with Meshal.

Carter told Beilin that in his efforts to solve international conflicts, he worked on a principle of talking with all possible parties.

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.

The Shin Bet security service declined to assist Carter during his visit, U.S. sources close to the matter said yesterday, describing the snub as an "unprecedented" breach between the Shin Bet and the U.S. Secret Service, which protects all current and former U.S. presidents, as well as Israeli leaders when they visit the United States.

Israeli government sources also described the lack of Shin Bet support during Carter's visit to the Qassam-battered Sderot as particularly "problematic."