JERUSALEM (AFP) — Former US president Jimmy Carter said on Monday the Islamist Hamas movement told him it would recognise Israel's right to live in peace if a deal is reached and approved by a Palestinian vote.
Carter made the comments following two meetings in Damascus with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal that angered Israel and the United States, which consider the movement a terror group despite its victory in 2006 elections.
"They said that they would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians and that they would accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbour, next door, in peace," Carter told the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
While in the Middle East Carter met with senior Hamas leaders from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Syria, but was unable to secure a ceasefire or a prisoner exchange for an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants in 2006.
Hours after Carter spoke Meshaal told a press conference in Damascus that Hamas would not recognise the Jewish state and would insist on the right of some 4.5 million Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
"We accept a Palestinian state within the June 4 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital -- a sovereign state without settlements -- as well as the right of Palestinian refugees to return, but without recognition of Israel," he said.
Meshaal ruled out any direct talks with Israel but said Hamas was ready to hold discussions with US officials and praised Carter for his "audacious and courageous" decision to meet with the movement's leaders.
He said Hamas would recognise a peace deal negotiated by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on condition that it was subject to a referendum.
Meshaal insisted, however, that "such a referendum is impossible without reconciliation" between Hamas and Fatah, divided since June 2007 when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip after routing forces loyal to Abbas.
It was also unclear whether Hamas would require the referendum to include Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza.
The United States has criticised Carter's decision to meet with Hamas and played down the message he conveyed.
"It seems to me that what Hamas needs to do is pretty clear. Renounce violence would be a good step towards showing you actually want peace," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Manama.
Carter's willingness to meet with Hamas also drew sharp criticism from Israel, where Olmert and other leaders refused to meet him.
"Carter is detached from reality... He talks to Khaled Meshaal and tries to reach an agreement, while the murderous attacks continue against the state of Israel," Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz said.
Carter said peace talks launched last November under US auspices have shown no sign of progress and that Hamas and Syria both had to be involved in any attempt to resolve the Middle East conflict.
"The problem is not that I met with Hamas in Syria, the problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet these people," said the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Carter said Hamas rejected his proposal for a unilateral, 30-day ceasefire, saying "they couldn't trust Israel to follow up by lessening attacks on Gaza and in the West Bank."
Speaking to reporters after the conference, Carter said he was "not in any role to get that reciprocal agreement because I can't talk to Israeli officials."
"So I told them (Hamas) don't wait for reciprocation, just do it unilaterally. This will bring a lot of credit to you around the world for doing a humane thing. They turned me down."
Since June last year Israel has carried out near-daily raids on the coastal strip while Palestinian militants have launched rockets at southern Israel.
Carter also said Hamas had agreed to allow Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in a deadly cross-border raid from Gaza in June 2006, to write a letter to his parents.
The former US president wrapped up his nine-day trip to the Middle East, which also took him to the West Bank, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan.
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