Hamas is prepared to accept the right of Israel to "live as a neighbor next door in peace," former President Jimmy Carter said Monday.
But it comes with a heavy price for the state of Israel: retreat to the 1967 borders -- a move that would leave Israel strategically and politically defenseless -- without the highlands of the Golan Heights on the Syrian border, and without the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and eastern Jerusalem.
Palestinians Must Approve in Referendum
Carter said the group 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.
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's remarks came following his much criticized meetings with the top Hamas leaders in Syria in last week.
U.S. and Israel the 'Problem'
"The problem is not that I met with Hamas in Syria," he said. "The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with someone who must be involved."
Both governments consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In the group's charter, it calls for Israel's destruction. It has also traditionally opposed peace negotiations with the Jewish state.
"There's no doubt that both the Arab world and Hamas will accept Israel's right to exist in peace within 1967 borders," he said, referring to Israel's frontiers before it captured large swaths of land in the 1967 Mideast war.
He added that "Hamas will not undermine Abbas's efforts to negotiate an agreement and Hamas will accept an agreement if the Palestinians support it in a free vote."
But Carter said he was told by Hamas that a referendum on a peace deal must be preceded by reconciliation between the group and Abbas's Fatah faction. Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah in fighting in June.
Preconditions Must be Met
A Hamas official in the Gaza Strip also referred to a series of preconditions raised by the Islamist group for assenting to a deal with Israel.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, later said Carter's comments "do not mean that Hamas is going to accept the result of the referendum."
Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he decided not to meet with Carter in Israel because he does not wish to be seen as participating in any negotiations with Hamas.
In his comments Monday, Carter said Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has "regressed" since a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., in November.
Carter also said Hamas has promised to let captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, send a letter to his parents. He added that the militants "made clear to us that they would accept an interim cease-fire in the Gaza Strip."
However, Carter said Hamas rejected his specific proposal for a month-long unilateral cease-fire.
Source: The Associated Press, Haaretz