The U.S. State Department says it sees no policy changes by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the wake of former President Jimmy Carter's meetings with Hamas leaders. The Bush administration counseled Mr. Carter against meeting Hamas.
Bush administration officials were irate over Mr. Carter's plans to meet Hamas, arguing it would undermine a political boycott aimed at forcing U.S. designated terrorist organization to accept international terms for Middle East peace talks.
Now that the former U.S. president has met key Hamas figures, the State Department is downplaying Mr. Carter's suggestion that Hamas is, at least conditionally, prepared to accept Israel as a neighbor in the region.
Mr. Carter said Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and other members of the group he met with in Damascus said they would accept a peace agreement with Israel negotiated by moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, if the accord was later approved by Palestinians in a referendum.
In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said there are already contradictory statements by other Hamas officials, suggesting the group would reserve the right to reject results of a referendum.
Casey said U.S. officials would be delighted if there really was movement by Hamas toward accepting terms the international Middle East Quartet set for Hamas in 2006 for entering peace talks, but said he sees no fundamental change coming from the Carter contacts:
"It does not recognize Israel's right to exist, it has not eschewed or walked away from terrorism and violence. Nor has it said it will honor any of the previous agreements that have been made with the Israeli government. All of which were conditions from the Quartet for the international community to engage with Hamas. I have seen a lot of contradictory statements out there in light of some of his meetings. But it is pretty clear to us there is no acceptance on the part of Hamas of any kind of negotiated settlement," said Casey.
Mr. Carter also met Syrian officials in Damascus and said both Syria and Hamas would have to be involved in order to make progress toward peace.
Casey said Syria, with which the United States has diplomatic relations, was invited to and attended last November's Annapolis conference on the Middle East hosted by President Bush.
He said the Damascus government has a history of making positive statements, but its stated good intentions are belied by its actions including interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon.
The State Department's chief Middle East policy official, David Welch, counseled former President Carter against having the meetings with Hamas.
Nonetheless, spokesman Casey said if Mr. Carter wishes to brief Assistant Secretary Welch or other officials about his meetings, they would be happy to hear from him.
Mr. Carter, a Democrat who held the White House from 1977 to 1981, has been active in international conflict resolution through his Atlanta-based Carter Center and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.