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Carter meets with Hamas officials in Egypt

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  • NEW: Carter: Hamas officials indicated they would accept peace agreement
  • Former president holds three hours of talks with Hamas officials
  • Carter also met with Palestinian leaders and Egyptian president
  • Israel, U.S. oppose meetings because they say Hamas is terror organization
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From Aneesh Raman
CNN
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CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Former President Carter met with senior Hamas officials in the Egyptian capital Thursday, rankling the Israeli and U.S. governments, which say it runs counter to their policies of not negotiating with terrorists.

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Former President Carter meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday in Cairo.

Carter told an audience at the American University in Cairo that the meeting lasted about three hours. Senior Hamas officials Mahmoud al-Zahar and Saeed Seyam traveled from Gaza to Cairo on Wednesday for the meeting.

Carter said the two Hamas officials indicated that they would accept a peace agreement with Israel if the plan were approved through "a referendum of the Palestinian community."

"It's my dream and my hope that someday in my lifetime, hopefully this year, we'll see a major breakthrough," said Carter, who met with al-Zahar and Seyam after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Carter had requested Israeli permission to go into Gaza but was refused.

The 83-year-old former president was on the fourth day of a nine-day "study mission" to the Middle East as part of his "ongoing effort to support peace, democracy and human rights in the region," according to the Carter Center's Web site. Video Watch a report on Carter's meeting with Hamas »

On Wednesday, he met with a number of Palestinian civil society leaders in Ramallah in the West Bank, including former Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, to whom he reportedly gave a hug, which is an Arab tradition.

On Friday, Carter will go to Syria, where he plans to meet with Hamas' exiled political leader, Khalid Meshaal.

During his stop in Israel, most officials -- including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- refused to meet with Carter, angry over his insistence that Israel should talk to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Ironically, Carter is doing what many Israelis would like their government to do, according to a recent survey. The poll found that 64 percent of Israelis think a dialogue should be opened between the Israeli government and Hamas.

The mayor of Sderot, Eli Moyal, agreed to meet with Carter this week. But he admitted that the former president is "not loved here these days," as the Israeli town is a frequent target of rocket attacks from militants in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The former president also met with the parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas militants nearly two years ago.

"My country, the political arena of my country, is almost 100 percent supportive of the Israeli position," Carter said. "You never hear any debates on both sides much, and most of the information is predicated on that sort of original premise."

Before his trip, Carter said he would act as a peace promoter, not as a negotiator on behalf of the United States.

Still, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, have said that a meeting between the former president and Hamas would send mixed signals to the group.

"They have laid down a rule to which I consider myself immune that ... nobody can talk to Hamas, nobody can talk to Syria," Carter said Thursday.

Carter, who helped broker the historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s, has also angered many in Israel with his 2006 book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," in which he was critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

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Last week, Rice said she found it "hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is in fact the impediment to peace."

Carter told the American University audience that "if there are any promising events or knowledge or opinions that I receive, then I'll obviously give these to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to President Bush. If I can get anyone in Israel to listen to me, I'll give it to the government of Israel." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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