DAMASCUS, Syria — Former President Jimmy Carter Thursday reiterated that there can be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians without involving the militant group Hamas.
His comments came shortly before he met with the militant group's Syrian-based leader, Khaled Mashaal. Carter met with Mashaal twice under the Bush administration, angering some in the U.S. government who said he was legitimizing a group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
But this was his first meeting under the Obama administration, which has launched a fresh quest for peace in the Middle East, and came as Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was less than 400 miles (645 kilometers) away in Cairo preparing to visit Syria Friday.
Carter, who went to Syria after observing elections in neighboring Lebanon, stressed that he was in Damascus as a private citizen and not representing the Obama administration.
Obama, also a Democrat, seems to be going in the direction that Carter has long advocated _ engagement with longtime foes Iran and Syria. So far Obama, like the Bush administration, has drawn the line at meeting with Hamas. But in a speech in Cairo last week, Obama seemed to suggest some basis for believing that Palestinian militants who rule Gaza might be drawn into the peace process.
As president, Carter helped broker an Israeli-Egyptian peace deal in the late 1970s and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts to promote peace around the world. He has continued to pursue Mideast peace through his Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center foundation, and angered many Israelis for his 2006 book that compared Israel's policies toward the Palestinians in the West Bank to apartheid.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Carter said Hamas and its more moderate Fatah rivals must reconcile so they can negotiate effectively with Israel.
"I don't believe there is a possibility to have any peace between the Palestinians and Israel unless Hamas is involved directly in harmony with Fatah," he said.
Carter said Obama's pressure on Israel to freeze construction in West Bank settlements is an essential step toward restarting peace efforts.
He said Israel is "very eager to avoid any serious disagreement or confrontation" with the U.S. and that Obama's push for a two-state solution would be seriously considered by Israel.
Carter also plans meetings in Israel and the West Bank over the weekend.
Syria's official news agency reported that Assad discussed with Carter ways to reactivate the peace process and stressed that Damascus is committed to peace that guarantees the return of Arab rights.
Syria wants Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Syrian-Israeli indirect talks through Turkey have been on hold since Israel launched an offensive on Gaza in December.
Turkey said Thursday it is prepared to restart mediation efforts but is waiting for both countries to signal their readiness to resume talks.