(CBS/AP) Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met a Hamas delegation from Gaza Thursday, part of a series of talks with the Islamic militant group that has drawn sharp criticism from U.S. and Israeli officials.
Carter spoke with Hamas officials in the West Bank Wednesday and angered Israelis when he embraced one of them. He plans to meet the group's exiled political chief, Khaled Mashaal, in Damascus, Syria on Friday.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate who brokered Israel's historic peace agreement with Egypt three decades ago is on what he calls a private peace mission. He contends the U.S., Israel and other Western states should stop isolating Hamas if they want peace efforts to succeed.
An Associated Press reporter saw the Hamas delegation with about 15 members heading into the meeting at a Cairo hotel and a Hamas coordinator in Egypt confirmed they were meeting with Carter. The coordinator spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The meeting was closed to the media and held under heavy security shortly after Carter and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met and then had lunch together with their wives. The former president is scheduled to give a speech and a news conference later Thursday at the American University of Cairo.
The Hamas delegation in Cairo was headed by Gaza leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siyam.
Zahar said Wednesday that Carter's meetings with its leaders will boost the group's legitimacy despite criticism by Israel and the U.S. government.
"This meeting is a message to those who don't recognize Hamas' legitimacy as a movement," he said as he left for Egypt, according to Hamas' Web site.
Hamas spokesman Taher Nuhu, who was also part of the delegation in Cairo, told The Associated Press Wednesday that meeting with Carter would be "a recognition of the legitimacy" of Hamas' victory in the Palestinians' parliamentary election in 2006.
"We do not claim we are the only legitimate group there, but we are an integral part whose legitimacy was manifested in the elections," Nuhu said.
A Carter spokesman refused to comment on Hamas' claim.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since its bloody takeover from the rival Fatah faction last June, opposes peace negotiations with Israel and is committed to the Jewish state's destruction.
The group has killed some 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and is branded a terror organization by the U.S. and Israel.
When he arrived in Egypt on Wednesday, Carter was greeted at the airport by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone.
Ricciardone, speaking to reporters in Arabic, described Carter as a "man of peace," but said the U.S. government disagrees with him about his contacts with Hamas.
Carter also has been criticized by some Democrats in Congress. Howard L. Berman of California, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Gary Ackerman, a New Yorker who heads the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, urged Carter to cancel the meeting with Mashaal.
"We believe this ... will undermine the Middle East peace process and damage the credibility of Palestinian moderates," including President Mahmoud Abbas, the two said in a letter addressed to Carter.
"The legitimacy and prestige that Hamas will derive from your visit will be seen in the region as a clear demonstration that violence pays," they said.
Abbas, the moderate head of Fatah, runs a government in the West Bank that rivals Hamas' Gaza regime.
In Israel, all the country's senior political leaders except President Shimon Peres declined to meet with Carter when he visited.
Nevertheless, Carter has argued it is counterproductive to ignore Hamas.
"I don't think it is possible to have an ultimate peace agreement without the involvement of Syria. And I don't think it will be possible without the involvement of Hamas," Carter told a group of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
Carter plans to visit Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan before returning to Israel late Sunday.
Several former State Department officials who have followed Mr. Carter's efforts in the Middle East for years also see a pattern in his refusal to follow the official policy guidelines, reports CBS News State Department reporter Wolfson. The former president seems to have an inclination to periodically insert himself into various aspects of peacemaking in the region, a tendency, the officials note, that rankles some who have watched him in the years since he left the White House.
Clearly, Mr. Carter feels his status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and his own efforts brokering the 1979 Camp David Accords which led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt give him as much latitude as he wishes to exercise.
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