WASHINGTON - Former President Carter said he feels "quite at ease" about meeting Hamas militants over the objections of Washington because the Palestinian group is essential to a future peace with Israel.
Carter, interviewed Saturday for ABC News' "This Week," airing Sunday, also said he would oppose a U.S. Olympic boycott and hopes all countries will join in the Beijing games.
He spoke from Katmandu, Nepal, where his team of observers from the Carter Center monitored an election that appeared likely to transform rule by royal dynasty into a democracy with former Maoist rebels in a strong position, judging by incomplete returns.
Several State Department officials, including the secretary, Condoleezza Rice, criticized Carter's plans to talk in Syria this week with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in the first public contact in two years between a prominent American figure and the group. Carter said he had not heard the objections directly, although a State Department spokesman said earlier that a senior official from the department had called the former president.
"President Carter is a private citizen. We respect his views," Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, said Sunday on ABC.
"The position of the government is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and we don't negotiate with terrorists. We think that's a very important principle to maintain," Hadley said. "The State Department made clear we think it's not useful for people to be running to Hamas at this point and having meetings."
"I feel quite at ease in doing this," he said. "I think 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."
Although he said the meeting would not be a negotiation, he outlined distinct goals.
"I think that it's very important that at least someone meet with the Hamas leaders to express their views, to ascertain what flexibility they have, to try to induce them to stop all attacks against innocent civilians in Israel and to cooperate with the Fatah as a group that unites the Palestinians, maybe to get them to agree to a cease-fire — things of this kind," he said.
The State Department says it advised Carter twice against meeting representatives of Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist organization.
"I find it hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is, in fact, the impediment to peace," Rice said Friday, after reports of the planned meeting surfaced.
Carter said he'd be meeting Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudi Arabians and others "who might have to play a crucial role in any future peace agreement that involves the Middle East."
Asked whether it was right to meet a group that has not renounced violence or recognized Israel, he said, "Well, you can't always get prerequisites adopted by other people before you even talk to them."
Pressure to drop the meeting has come from his own party. Democratic Reps. Artur Davis of Alabama, Shelley Berkley of Nevada, Adam Schiff of California and Adam Smith of Washington state wrote a letter to Carter saying the meeting could confer legitimacy on a group that embraces violence.
"I've been meeting with Hamas leaders for years," Carter said.
The Carter Center said his "study mission" was taking him to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan this week.
Carter, a broker of the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his conflict mediation as president and since.
As president, Carter led the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "That was a totally different experience in 1980, when the Soviet Union had brutally invaded and killed thousands and thousands of people," he said, rejecting the idea of boycotting the Beijing games to protest China's crackdown in Tibet. He did not address whether just the opening ceremonies should be boycotted.