Former President Jimmy Carter defended this weekend his intention to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal during an upcoming trip to the Middle East, saying the group must be included in the peace process for the troubled region.
"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," Carter said in an exclusive interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News' "This Week."
"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," Carter added. "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."
However, the 39th president was also quick to point out that his trip is not an official visit, and comes out of the ongoing work of a Carter Center project to promote peace in the Middle East.
"I'm not going as a mediator or a negotiator," he explained. "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."
Carter added that he plans to share what he learns with Secretary of State Rice.
Carter, who as president helped orchestrate the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt -- Israel's first peace agreement with any of its neighbors, acknowledged that this trip will not be the first time he has met with leaders of the terrorist group.
"I've been meeting with Hamas leaders for years," he said. "The last meetings that I've had with Hamas leaders, immediately following the election in January of 2006, they told me that they were willing to declare, along with Israel, a complete ceasefire in Gaza and in the West Bank, that they were fully endorsing the right and authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, to negotiate on behalf of all the Palestinians. ... So, I've heard some reports directed to me early on, that they might be somewhat flexible. And I intend to find out if these are their prevailing thoughts now."
Since the news broke of his upcoming trip, Carter has been hit with stern criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. Both Democratic presidential hopefuls as well as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain have all spoken out against his planned meeting.
But Carter maintains he feels "quite at ease in doing this."
"It's something that the Carter Center has adopted as a goal, after I left office, to promote peace, to promote human rights and justice, and democracy and freedom, and to alleviate suffering," he said. "And sometimes we are criticized."
Carter also chimed in on the growing debate over the upcoming Olypmics and confirmed his belief that the U.S. should not boycott the Beijing games.
"I hope that all the countries will go ahead and participate in the Olympics," he said.
The man who led the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics might have been support a boycott of the games in China, with its often-criticized human rights record, but he said the two cases are not analagous.