JERUSALEM, April 21, 2008 -- Fresh from his controversial talks with Hamas leaders in Damascus, Syria, former President Jimmy Carter told ABC News that Hamas would accept the existence of Israel within the confines of the 1967 borders if the Palestinian people approved such a deal.
"Hamas leaders all reconfirmed the fact that if there are successful negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and if the peace agreement, whether Hamas likes it or not, is submitted to the Palestinian people for approval, they will accept it," he said in an interview in Jerusalem today.
In a separate news conference in Damascus later in the day, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said that while Hamas would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it would not recognize Israel.
But Hamas also proposed a 10-year truce with Israel if it withdraws from lands it seized in 1967, an implicit recognition of Israel.
Hamas is excluded from the U.S.-backed peace process because it has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence. A paragraph from its founding charter calls for Israel's destruction.
Carter's message from Hamas leaders signaled a potentially significant change in attitude by the militant Islamic group.
Hamas' much-quoted intention of destroying Israel is now "ancient history," Carter said
The new position is a serious breakthrough and should force both Israel and the United States to start talks with Hamas, Carter said
"It's not a mistake for me to talk to them," he said. "The mistake is for the United States and Israel not to talk to them."
He insisted that any peace process was doomed to fail unless it included Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million residents.
It is unclear whether the new statement from Hamas will lead to a change in the Israeli or U.S. policy. An Israeli government spokesman contacted by ABC News refused to comment on Carter's statements.
The former president, who successfully brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, said he asked Hamas to initiate a unilateral ceasefire and to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Both requests were refused.
Hamas claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing attack this weekend on Israeli soldiers on the border with Gaza. The group's rocket attacks against nearby Israel civilian targets have also continued.
Carter was equally critical of U.S. policy toward Syria. During his visit to Damascus he also met with President Bashar Assad.
"Assad is very eager to commence talks," he told ABC News. "He's very eager for the U.S. to play a key role and to resolve the question of the Golan Heights."
Carter told ABC News the United States is blocking possible talks.
"How can you have peace between Israel and Syria if the United States is preventing Israel from talking to Syria?" he asked.