Carter Holds Controversial Meeting With Hamas Leader

Former President Carter's controversial Middle East tour arrived in Damascus, Syria, today where he is expected to meet with Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas and a man the U.S. government calls a terrorist.

Carter will also meet with the president of Syria, Bashar al Assad.

On Thursday he held talks with Hamas leaders from the Gaza Strip in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

During a speech at the American University in Cairo he defended his contacts with the group that is shunned by both the U.S. administration and the Israeli government.

"You have to involve Hamas. They have to be involved in some way," Carter said.

Hamas has been isolated by much of the international community for its refusal to recognize Israel, give up violence and adhere to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The current U.S.-backed peace process involves only moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who has established himself as a leading proponent of nonviolence.

Leading Israeli columnist Akiva Eldar told ABC News today that this policy would not work.

"It's no use just talking to the good guys like Abbas, if you don't also talk to the bad guys like Hamas. Any deal Israel makes with Abbas can be destroyed by Hamas if they don't agree," Eldar said.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz carried reports today that Israeli Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai told Carter he would also be willing to meet with Meshal, but only to discuss the release of an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas in Gaza.

Carter rejected the widespread criticism he has received from U.S. officials and most recently by U.S. presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain.

"So they have laid down a rule to which I consider myself immune -- that nobody can talk to them," the former president said.

Carter also attacked current Israeli policy of blockading the Gaza Strip, which since June has been ruled by Hamas.

"It's an atrocity that is perpetrated as punishment on the people of Gaza. It's a crime. … I think it is an abomination that this continues to go on," he said.

During his visit to Israel earlier in the week Carter was not met by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or other senior leaders, leading to speculation that his willingness to talk to Hamas had led to an orchestrated snub.

ABC News today sought reaction to Carter's latest statements but was told no Israeli government spokesmen would be commenting on his tour.

After his meetings in Damascus, Carter flies to Saudi Arabia before returning to Israel early next week, where he will brief the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations in Jerusalem.

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