JERUSALEM - Former President Carter said Monday that Hamas — the Islamic militant group that has called for the destruction of Israel — is prepared to accept the right of the Jewish state to "live as a neighbor next door in peace."
But Carter warned that there would not be peace if Israel and the U.S. continue to shut out Hamas and its main backer, Syria.
The Democratic former president relayed the message in a speech in Jerusalem after meeting last week with top Hamas leaders in Syria. It capped a nine-day visit to the Mideast aimed at breaking the deadlock between Israel and Hamas militants who rule the Gaza Strip.
"They (Hamas) said that they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, if approved by Palestinians and that they would accept the right of Israel to live as a neighbor next door in peace," Carter said.
The borders he referred to were the frontiers that existed before Israel captured large swaths of Arab lands in the 1967 Mideast war — including the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.
In the past, Hamas officials have said they would establish a "peace in stages" if Israel were to withdraw to the borders it held before 1967. But it has been evasive about how it sees the final borders of a Palestinian state and has not abandoned its official call for Israel's destruction.
Israel, which evacuated Gaza in 2005, has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there and in much of the West Bank. But it has resisted Palestinian demands that it return to its 1967 frontiers.
Carter urged Israel to engage in direct negotiations with Hamas, saying failure to do so was hampering peace efforts.
"We do not believe that peace is likely and certainly that peace is not sustainable unless a way is found to bring Hamas into the discussions in some way," he said. "The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working."
Israel considers Hamas to be a terrorist group and has shunned Carter because of his meetings with Hamas' supreme chief, Khaled Mashaal, and other Hamas figures. Hamas has been behind dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed some 250 Israelis.
Syria harbors Hamas' exiled leadership in its capital, Damascus, and supports the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas who warred with Israel in the summer of 2006. The U.S. considers both Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organizations.
Carter said Hamas promised it wouldn't undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel, as long as the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum. In such a scenario, he said Hamas would not oppose a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Carter said Hamas officials, including Mashaal, agreed to this in a written statement.
"Let me read exactly what they accepted verbatim. This is their language: 'If President Abbas succeeds in negotiating a final status agreement with Israel, Hamas will accept the decision made by the Palestinian people and their will in a referendum monitored by international observers ... even if Hamas is opposed to the agreement,'" Carter said.
But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza said Hamas' readiness to put a peace deal to a referendum "does not mean that Hamas is going to accept the result of the referendum."
Such a referendum, he said, would have to be voted on by Palestinians living all over the world. They number about 9.3 million, including some 4 million living in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
The only Israeli officials to meet with Carter during the former president's latest Mideast mission were Israeli President Shimon Peres and Eli Yishai, one of several deputy prime ministers. Peres scolded Carter for meeting with Hamas but Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said he was willing to meet with Hamas leaders to discuss a prisoner exchange.
Israel says Carter's talks embolden Palestinian extremists and hurt Palestinian moderates as they try to make peace with the Jewish state. Abbas, who rules only the West Bank, is in a bitter rivalry with Hamas.
"The problem is not that I met with Hamas in Syria," Carter said Monday. "The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with someone who must be involved."
Carter said Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has "regressed" since a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., in November. He faulted Israel for continuing to build on disputed land the Palestinians want for a future state and for its network of roadblocks that severely hamper Palestinians traveling in the West Bank.
"The prison around Gaza has been tightened," he said, referring to Israel's blockade of the territory since the Hamas takeover.
Israel has been negotiating directly with Abbas, who heads a moderate government based in the West Bank. Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip last June, when Hamas violently seized control of that territory.
Carter said Hamas has promised to let a captured Israeli soldier send a letter to his parents.
Direct communication between Israel and Hamas could facilitate the release of Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who has been held in Gaza for nearly two years.
Israel agrees in principle to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit, but after back-and-forth talks through Egyptian intermediaries, has approved only 71 of the specific prisoners that Hamas wants freed, he said.
However, Carter said Hamas rejected his specific proposal for a monthlong unilateral cease-fire.