JERUSALEM - Former president Jimmy Carter angered Israel's government yesterday by embracing a Hamas politician during a visit to the West Bank, ignoring Israeli and US designation of the Islamic militants as a terror group.
Israel accused Carter, the broker of the first Arab-Israeli peace accord, of "dignifying" extremists. But Carter vowed to meet Hamas' supreme leader this week in Syria.
Carter, a Nobel Peace laureate, also laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat's grave, another break with US policy during a private peace mission to the Middle East that includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria - where the virulently anti-Israel Hamas movement has its headquarters. Carter returns to Israel on Monday.
Carter has been shunned by Israel this week, and the White House has criticized him for his willingness to meet with Hamas leaders. Carter says the United States and Israel should stop isolating the group, whose control of the Gaza Strip threatens to undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
"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," Carter said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
During the graveside ceremony, a two-man honor guard escorted Carter, 83, and his wife, Rosalynn. Carter placed the wreath on the grave, then solemnly nodded before turning away. Later, a Palestinian host told Carter that Arafat's resting place was temporary, and the Palestinians hope to move his remains to Jerusalem one day. Carter did not react.
President Bush blamed Arafat for the breakdown of peace talks and subsequent wave of violence and cut off of contacts with the longtime Palestinian leader before he died in 2004. Bush did not visit Arafat's grave when he visited Ramallah this year.
Carter also attended a reception organized by his office for Palestinian dignitaries in Ramallah. At the gathering, Carter embraced Nasser Shaer, a senior Hamas politician, meeting participants said. Embraces between men are a common custom in Arab culture.
"We hugged each other, and it was a warm reception," 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."
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 Islamic 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. alestinians say Shaer, an academic, was not involved in Hamas attacks against Israel, and Israel has never charged him with violent activity.
Carter's office refused to comment on the closed meeting.
Carter is scheduled to meet Khaled Mashaal, the group's exiled leader, in Damascus on Friday.