TRANSCRIPT: Former President Jimmy Carter

You'll be the highest-ranking American ever to meet with him. His group is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, and the State Department advised against the meeting.

Why are you doing it anyway?

CARTER: Well, the State Department has not advised me against a meeting. I haven't heard that. But I've been in Africa and here in Nepal. They may have.

But I've not confirmed our itinerary yet for the Syrian visit, but it's likely that I will be meeting with the Hamas leaders. We'll be meeting with the Israelis. We'll be meeting with Fatah.

We'll be meeting with the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudi Arabians, and with the whole gamut of people who might have to play a crucial role in any future peace agreement that involves the Middle East.

As a matter of fact, I've been meeting with Hamas leaders for years. As a matter of fact, 10 years ago, after Arafat was first elected president of the PLO and the Palestinians, we were monitoring that election, and I met with Hamas afterwards.

And then, in January of 2006, we were the monitors there for the Palestinian election, and Hamas won the election. We met with them after the election was over.

And so, I think that it's very important that at least someone meet with the Hamas leaders to express their views, to ascertain what flexibility they have, to try to induce them to stop all attacks against innocent civilians in Israel and to cooperate with the Fatah as a group that unites the Palestinians, maybe to get them to agree to a ceasefire -- things of this kind.

But I might add very quickly, that I'm not going as a mediator or a negotiator. This is a mission that we take as part of an overall Carter Center project, to promote peace in the region.

Since the election was over -- the one that I just mentioned, in 2006 -- we've had a full-time office in Ramallah, trying to keep me informed about what progress was made and what things weren't.

But my overwhelming commitment is to support fully the peace effort that has been supported and endorsed by President Bush and by Secretary Condoleezza Rice, and by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But Secretary Rice just said this week that it's hard to see what can be gained by you meeting with the Hamas leader, because Hamas is an impediment to peace.

CARTER: Well, I'll be sharing what I find with Secretary Rice. And I don't find myself able to anticipate, without having a meeting with them, what they might have to contribute.

But I think there's no doubt in anyone's mind that, if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process.

And I might add that the Israeli people, according to the most recent poll that's been published in many media, fully believe that the Israeli government itself should be engaged with direct negotiations with Hamas. Sixty-four percent, I believe, of Israelis believe this.

So, I think someone should be meeting with Hamas to see what we can do to encourage them to be cooperative and to find out what their attitude.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your trip has also become fodder for the political campaign here at home. Senators Obama and Clinton and both said they would not meet with the Hamas leader. Several Democratic congressmen are urging you not to follow through with the meeting.

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