NEW YORK — Israel's ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday called former President Jimmy Carter "a bigot" for meeting with the leader of the militant Hamas movement in Syria.
Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, "went to the region with soiled hands and came back with bloody hands after shaking the hand of Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas," Ambassador Dan Gillerman told a luncheon briefing for reporters.
The diplomat was questioned about problems facing his country during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters lasting more than an hour. The briefing was sponsored by The Israel Project, a Washington-based, media-oriented advocacy group.
The ambassador's harsh words for Carter came days after the ex-president met with Mashaal for seven hours in Damascus to negotiate a cease-fire with Gaza's Hamas rulers. Carter then called Mashaal on Monday to try to get him to agree to a one-month truce without conditions, but the Hamas leader rejected the idea.
The ambassador called last weekend's encounter "a very sad episode in American history."
He said it was "a shame" to see Carter, who had done "good things" as a former president, "turn into what I believe to be a bigot."
Telephone calls by The Associated Press to two Atlanta numbers for Carter were not immediately returned Thursday.
Gillerman said Hamas is armed and trained by Iran, whose president once called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
"The real danger, the real problem is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the real threat is Iran," he said.
Gillerman spoke with reporters from around the world at the Times Square offices of a New York law firm on the day Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Washington meeting with President Bush.
The ambassador said he was "quite optimistic" about the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement because Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have met more times than any previous leaders of the two sides.
"I believe they've gone deeper and further than any other Israeli or Palestinian leader, and I believe that there is a very good chance (for a settlement)," he said.
Gillerman also was asked about another topic involving the U.S. government and Israel: the arrest last week in New Jersey of an 84-year-old man accused of passing U.S. weapons program secrets to an Israeli agent a quarter-century ago.
Retired U.S. military engineer Ben-ami Kadish faces charges linking him to the same now-defunct Israeli intelligence agency that used Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.
Gillerman called it "a very old matter."
"It pertains to something that may or may not have happened 25 years ago" and would be decided when Kadish goes to trial, he said.
In the wake of the Pollard case, the ambassador said Israel had made a pledge not to spy on the United States, "and that is something which I know that we have honored completely."
The ambassador declined to comment on U.S. government reports that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance before it was bombed by Israeli planes last year.
Gillerman called Syria a "destabilizing influence" in the Middle East.
"You see Syria's hosting, very hospitably and warmly, over 10 terror organizations in Damascus," the ambassador said, adding that the country also supports Hezbollah, an anti-Israeli Shiite group in Lebanon with close ties to Iran and Syria.
"Basically, Syria and Iran, together with Hamas and Hezbollah, are the main axes of terror and evil in the world," the Israeli ambassador said.