- Egypt - Hamas - Israel - Mahmoud Abbas - Palestinian Territories
DAMASCUS, April 18 (Reuters) - Jimmy Carter met Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, beginning a round of talks
at which the former U.S. president is expected to raise the case
of a detained Israeli soldier.
Carter's meeting with Assad comes ahead of talks with exiled
leaders of Hamas, the Islamist group which the U.S. statesman
argues should be included in efforts for Israeli-Palestinian
Carter, who is on a Middle East tour to hear views on
solving the conflict, will later meet Hamas leader Khaled
Meshaal and senior Hamas members in one of the highest profile
encounters between the group and a Western figure.
Carter and Assad posed for photographs ahead of their
meeting at a presidential palace. One source familiar with the
talks said Carter would raise in his meetings the issue of an
Israeli soldier who is held by Hamas.
Previous efforts to broker a prisoner exchange deal between
Hamas and Israel involving the soldier, who was captured by
Palestinian fighters in a 2006 raid on Israeli territory, have
"Carter is very upbeat. The publicity put out by his
detractors made him more determined to pursue a different way
with Hamas. He is optimistic that the meeting will advance
efforts to end the soldier's saga," the source said.
In a proposal passed to Carter this week, an Israeli cabinet
minister offered to meet the leadership of Hamas to ask for the
release of a soldier held in Gaza -- a move which would
contravene official Israeli government policy.
Carter, who brokered the 1979 peace treaty between Israel
and Egypt when he was president, met two senior Hamas officials
in Cairo on Thursday after Israel refused him permission to
enter the Gaza Strip, where they live.
Carter said the Hamas leaders he had met in Cairo told him
they would accept a peace agreement with Israel negotiated by
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah
faction, if the Palestinians approved it in a referendum.
But one of them, Mahmoud al-Zahar, wrote this week that a
peace process could not start until Israel withdrew from all the
land it occupied in the 1967 war, ended its military presence in
the West Bank and Gaza, dismantled all settlements, repudiated
its annexation of Arab East Jerusalem, released all prisoners
and ended its air, sea and land "blockade" of Palestinian land.
"Given what we have lost, it is the only basis by which we
can start to be whole again," Zahar wrote in an article
published by the Washington Post this week.
Palestinian political commentator Ali Badwan said Carter's
meetings with Hamas could help erode a U.S.-led drive to isolate
the group, which has refused to abandon armed struggle and
recognise past Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.
"Carter is a respected figure and his visit may encourage
some in the West to open channels with Hamas," Badwan said.
"The meeting shows that Fatah has no longer a monopoly on
the Palestinian national decision. We are even hearing Israeli
voices calling for dialogue with Hamas," he added.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not meet Carter
during his visit to Israel and Washington criticised him for his
contacts with Hamas, which both regard as a terrorist group.
Hamas says it is a legitimate resistance group fighting
Israeli occupation. Carter said Hamas, which won Palestinian
parliamentary elections in 2006, must be involved in any
arrangements that could lead to peace.
Carter has expressed sympathy for the Palestinians during
his tour, calling the blockade of Gaza a crime and an atrocity.
He is accompanied on his tour by his wife and son as well as
former U.S. lawmaker Stephen Solarz, who supported Israel
strongly during his 18 years in Congress.
The Baathist government in Damascus hosts Meshaal and other
exiled Hamas leaders, despite its longstanding suppression of
Syrian Islamists -- an estimated 3,000 of whom are in jail.