- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Former President Jimmy Carter embraced a leading Hamas figure yesterday, according to participants in a meeting that infuriated Israeli officials already upset by Mr. Carter’s freelance Mideast peace mission.

Mr. Carter also laid a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat, whom the Bush administration and many Israelis blame for the breakdown of peace talks seven years ago and the violence that followed.

President Bush did not visit Mr. Arafat’s mausoleum in Ramallah when he visited earlier this year.

At a reception in the West Bank town of Ramallah organized by Mr. Carter’s office, the former president hugged Nasser Shaer, a senior Hamas politician, meeting participants said. Embraces between men are a common custom in Arab culture.

“He gave me a hug. We hugged each other, and it was a warm reception,” Mr. Shaer said. “Carter asked what he can do to achieve peace between the Palestinians and Israel … and I told him the possibility for peace is high.”

Mr. Carter’s office refused to comment, saying he does not discuss closed meetings.

Mr. Shaer, who served as deputy prime minister and education minister in the Hamas-led Palestinian government that unraveled last year, is considered a leading member of the Islamist militant group’s pragmatic wing. After a stint in an Israeli prison last year, he is now a professor at a West Bank university teaching comparative religion.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Mr. Carter’s meeting with Hamas “dignified” a group committed to Israel’s destruction. “One cannot but wonder how this attitude is supposed to promote peace and understanding,” he said.

Israel and the West Bank are the first stops on a visit that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria — where the virulently anti-Israel Hamas movement is headquartered. Shunned by his Israeli hosts and criticized by the White House for his willingness to meet with Hamas, Mr. Carter has urged that both stop isolating the militant group.

“Since Syria and Hamas will have to be involved in a final peace agreement, they have to be involved in discussions that lead to final peace,” Mr. Carter said yesterday.

Mr. Carter is to meet Khaled Mashaal, the group’s exiled leader, in Damascus, Syria, on Friday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not meeting with Mr. Carter during his visit, and the only Israeli leader to host him, President Shimon Peres, scolded Mr. Carter for his planned meeting with Mr. Mashaal.

Earlier this week, Mr. Carter said isolating Hamas is counterproductive and volunteered to serve as a conduit between the group and the U.S. and Israeli governments.

Mr. Carter acknowledged yesterday he was not on an official mission and had “no authority at all.”

“I’m not a negotiator. I’m just trying to understand different opinions and provide communication between people,” he said.

Mr. Carter said he requested permission to enter the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip but was turned down. Mr. Carter’s office also said a request for security protection from Israel’s Shin Bet agency had not been met.

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