RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met an ex-minister in Hamas' government on Tuesday, defying Israeli leaders who shunned the Nobel Peace Prize laureate over his contacts with the Islamist group.
Naser al-Shaer, who served as deputy prime minister in the Hamas-led government that the United States and other Western powers boycotted, was greeted by Carter with a hug and kisses to both cheeks, a member of Carter's delegation said.
"Mr. Carter wanted to listen to the positions of different Palestinian figures. The meeting was very good and he promised to continue such meetings," said Shaer, who was among several Palestinian political figures to meet with the former president.
Carter has angered the Israeli government over plans to meet Hamas' top leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Syria, and for describing Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories as "a system of apartheid" in a 2006 book.
Carter, who brokered Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor, Egypt, signed in 1979, met Israel's ceremonial president Shimon Peres on Sunday but was shunned by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other policymakers.
Shaer told Reuters he met one-on-one with Carter and they discussed efforts to broker an unofficial truce between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas seized the coastal territory by force in June after routing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' more secular Fatah faction. Abbas then sacked a Hamas-led unity government and appointed a Western-backed administration in the West Bank. Abbas's authority has been limited to the occupied West Bank.
Shaer said Carter told him he wanted to play a role in trying to end the enmity between Hamas and Fatah.
Carter told reporters earlier he had wanted to visit Gaza, but his request was rejected. Carter did not say who turned down his request, but a member of his delegation said it was Israel.
"I haven't been able to get permission to go into Gaza. I would like to. I asked for permission. But I was turned down. But maybe we can find a way to circumvent that," Carter said.
All of the border crossings between Israel and Gaza are controlled by the Jewish state. Egyptian forces are stationed at Gaza's southern border, which is largely closed.
Carter said he would use his meeting with Meshaal to "get him to agree to a peaceful resolution of differences, both with the Israelis ... and also with Fatah".
"Since Syria and Hamas will have to be involved in the final peace agreement, they ought to be involved in the discussions leading up to ... peace," Carter said.
Carter, who stressed he was not acting as a negotiator or a mediator, said he hoped "just as a communicator" to relay to "leaders of the United States" what Hamas and Syria have to say.
Israel and Washington have sought to isolate Hamas and bolster Abbas, who launched U.S.-backed peace talks with Olmert.
Like Israel, the Bush administration opposes Carter's meeting with Meshaal, whose Islamist group won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 but was boycotted by the West for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
During his visit to Ramallah, Carter placed a wreath at the mausoleum of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
U.S. President George W. Bush pointedly chose not to do so during his recent visit. The Bush administration shunned Arafat, who died in 2004, accusing him of fomenting violence.
Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Mary Gabriel