WASHINGTON (AFP) — Former president Jimmy Carter's plans to meet Hamas leaders have drawn short shrift from his fellow Democrats on the White House campaign trail, anxious to display their support for Israel.
Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both called Hamas a "terrorist organization" that should remain ostracized until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
Unless that happens, Obama told reporters Friday, "I don't think conversations with them would be fruitful."
But the Illinois senator also refused to condemn Carter's potential meeting in Syria with Hamas exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, arguing it was not up to him to dictate the former president's plans.
Carter is one of nearly 800 Democratic grandees known as "superdelegates" who look set to decide the party's presidential nomination. He has not declared a preference, but has dropped heavy hints in favor of Obama.
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement: "Hillary respects former president Carter but disagrees with his decision. She would not meet with Hamas without coordinating with Israel."
Carter, architect of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, defended his planned talks with Meshaal as he kicked off a week-long trip to the Middle East on Sunday.
Carter said he viewed Hamas' inclusion in peace talks as "very important" and, while remaining vague about when he might meet the Palestinian group's leader, stressed he was not travelling as an official US negotiator.
"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process," he told ABC News.
Republican contender John McCain has yet to comment on Carter's Hamas talks, according to a campaign aide, but has made his feelings about the militant organization clear.
Replying last week to a questionnaire submitted to the US presidential runners by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, McCain said Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria were all "enemies of Israel."
"The international community should hold Hamas and its sponsors accountable for their support of terrorists and terrorism," he wrote, adding that a McCain administration would "always stand with Israel" against extremists.
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