BEIRUT (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said on Friday he hoped President-elect Barack Obama would quickly engage in Middle East peace talks when he takes office.
Carter, president from 1977 to 1981, said Obama had told him he would “begin this effort early in his term.”
“The United States for the last eight years has been basically aloof from negotiations,” Carter said in an address at the American University of Beirut. “My hope is we will see a new movement toward a comprehensive peace in this region.”
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, Carter helped negotiate a 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Critics say President George W. Bush largely ignored Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking until belatedly launching talks in November 2007.
Carter has been a tough critic of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories, angering the Israeli government with his 2006 book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
He also caused controversy earlier this year by meeting leaders of the Palestinian faction Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
Carter said he had no doubts over Obama’s “political courage.” “But I know the tremendous political pressure that exists in my nation among political office holders to comply almost without exception to the policies of the Israeli government,” he said.
Obama’s election was cheered by many Arabs glad to see an end to what they have seen as the Bush administration’s ruinous Middle East policies. But the appointment of pro-Israeli figures in the new administration has tempered initial enthusiasm. Carter said that while Obama had picked Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Rahm Emmanuel as White House chief of staff, there was hope in his choice of retired Marine Gen. James Jones as national security advisor.
“As far as Rahm Emmanuel is concerned, yes, he is closely affiliated with Israel ... But I think that another hopeful sign is that General Jim Jones will be his national security advisor,” Carter said.
Clinton had “been quite close to AIPAC’s position in the past,” Carter added, in reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group.
“But I think that Jim Jones is thoroughly familiar with the situation in Palestine,” Carter said. Diplomats sayJones was critical of Israel in a confidential report this year on how Israelis and Palestinians had met security commitments.
Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Louise Ireland