Israel on Carter: Were just not talking

Three decades after Jimmy Carter revolutionized the Middle East by brokering the first Israeli-Arab peace accord, he is back in the region preaching reconciliation and being rebuffed for the way he’s doing it.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli government officials declined to meet Carter during his time in Israel. He was denied permission to visit the Gaza Strip, and Shin Bet bodyguards did not assist his Secret Service detail.

At the heart of these slights is Carter’s plan to travel to Syria to meet Hamas’ leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal — a man blacklisted by Israel, the United States and the European Union for orchestrating Hamas terrorism. The meeting was scheduled for Friday, April 18.

Carter’s itinerary also has caused a stir in the United States, where President Bush and the three major-party presidential candidates criticized his plans to visit Mashaal.

The former president — who this week visited Sderot to meet with Israeli victims of Gazan rocket attacks, and went to Ramallah to lay a wreath on Yasser Arafat’s grave and embrace a senior Hamas official — has played down the significance of his meeting with Mashaal while also suggesting he may have the power to soften the arch terrorist’s commitment to Israel’s destruction.

“I am going to try everything that I can to get him to agree to a peaceful resolution of differences,” Carter told reporters. “But I’m not a negotiator. I’m just trying to understand different options and communicate — provide communication between people that won’t communicate with each other.”

Jerusalem officialdom kept mum about Carter’s peregrinations.

“We’re just not talking,” said one Olmert aide.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, said last week that the Carter-Mashaal meeting would “embolden terrorists and undermine the cause of peace.”

Most Israeli media showed scant interest in the elder statesman’s visit, which came amid an influx of foreign dignitaries to Israel ahead of next month’s 60th anniversary events.

One salient exception was the left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper, whose outgoing editor, David Landau, hosted the ex-president for a televised colloquy and ran an editorial titled “Our Debt to Jimmy Carter.”

Carter is among the superdelegates able to cast unrestricted votes for their candidate of choice at the Democratic Party’s convention this summer.

Dan Shapiro, the Middle East adviser for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, said the presidential hopeful disagrees with Carter’s decision to meet Mashaal in Syria.

“Barack Obama views Hamas as a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction and believes they cannot be treated as a legitimate actor until they recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements,” Shapiro said. “That has been his position consistently, and it places him squarely at odds with former President Carter’s plan to meet with Hamas leaders.”

Phil Singer, a spokesman for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, said, “Hillary respects former President Carter but disagrees with his decision. She would not meet with Hamas without coordinating with Israel.”

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain slammed Carter’s trip.

“Engaged in a campaign that deliberately targets innocent Israeli civilians, Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel,” the Arizona lawmaker said. “President Carter is wrong to meet with Hamas, a terrorist group that has also killed innocent Americans.”

After his trip to Damascus, Carter is scheduled to return to Jerusalem next week and address the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, a forum that has prestige but little executive clout.

Ahead of Carter’s planned visit, Mashaal spoke about Israel at his daughter’s wedding, according to Yediot Achronot.

“Israel’s countdown will continue until it disappears,” the Israeli daily quoted him as saying. “Au revoir in Jerusalem, and in liberated Palestine!”