Tuesday, April 22, 2008

JERUSALEM — Hamas said yesterday it was prepared to accept a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, but contradicted a statement by former President Jimmy Carter that it would accept Israel’s right to exist if that was the will of the Palestinian people.

State Department officials said the Hamas statement fell far short of what was needed for the militant movement to play a constructive role in the administration’s drive for a Middle East peace deal before President Bush leaves office.

Mr. Carter — who infuriated Israeli leaders by meeting in Damascus, Syria, with Hamas’ political leader, Khalid Mashaal — announced what appeared to be a significant concession in an address yesterday to the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations.

Hamas “said 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 in peace, provided the agreements negotiated by [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas were submitted to the Palestinians,” Mr. Carter said.

The Islamic militants have opposed any recognition of the Jewish state, speaking only of accepting a two-state solution in the framework of a long-term truce rather than a peace treaty.

However, at a later press conference in Damascus, Mr. Mashaal backed away from the concession announced by Mr. Carter.

“We accept a state on the [1967] line with Jerusalem as capital, real sovereignty and full right of return for refugees, but without recognizing Israel,” Al Jazeera quoted him as saying.

Officials and analysts were divided on the significance of Hamas’ talks with Mr. Carter, who has been barnstorming through the Middle East for the past eight days to make the argument for engaging the Islamic militants.

“For the first time, there’s a public indication of Hamas’ willingness to accept a peace deal with Israel,” said Gershon Baskin, co-president of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information.

“It’s the first indication that Hamas has said in public that it’s turning its back on its own covenant of never recognizing Israel and never making peace with Israel. This is enormous news.”

However, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington that it was clear “nothing has changed in terms of Hamas’ basic views about Israel and about peace in the region.”

“They still refuse to acknowledge or recognize any of the basic Quartet principles, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing terrorism and acknowledging all the previous agreements that have been made between the Palestinian Authority and Israel itself.

“I think,” he said, “if you look back at the history of the rhetoric from Hamas, you see… language about truces and other kinds of issues.

“But the bottom line is, Hamas still believes in the destruction of the state of Israel. They don’t believe Israel has a right to exist. And it’s pretty hard to see how Hamas becomes any kind of legitimate partner for Israel or for President Abbas, for that matter, as long as its fundamental view is that the person that you would achieve a peace agreement with doesn’t have a right to exist.”

An Israeli government spokesman declined to comment on the Hamas remarks relayed by Mr. Carter. The Palestinian Authority was similarly mum.

Any ratification of a peace treaty by the Palestinian people would be problematic since it is hard to see how a vote could be held without a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian factions.

Mr. Abbas has said he plans to put a peace treaty to a vote, but it is unclear whether it would be in a referendum or a vote for the legislature, and who would be eligible to vote.

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.

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