PITTSBURGH Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama on Tuesday expressed wariness about former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's report of progress in his meetings with leaders of the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas.
The Illinois senator said Carter's meetings with Hamas leaders were a "bad idea."
Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, said Hamas's leaders told him they would accept a peace deal with Israel if the Palestinians voted for it.
But their commitments were short on details and remarks by a Gaza-based Hamas official suggested the movement was not abandoning long-held positions, including the destruction of the Jewish state.
"What we're seeing now is that even as President Carter suggests there was breakthrough, you had some of the same old rhetoric coming out of Hamas representatives with regard to Israel," Obama told reporters while campaigning in Pennsylvania, which was holding an important vote on Tuesday in the Democratic nomination fight.
The United States, the European Union and Israel view Hamas as a terrorist organization and its charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, declined to comment about Carter's statements following his meetings with Hamas officials.
"I don't know anything about it," she told reporters in Conshohocken, a suburb of Philadelphia.
FOCUS ON 'MODERATES'
Obama echoed the Bush administration's view that the United States should focus its efforts on encouraging talks between moderate Palestinian leaders and Israel rather than trying to engage Hamas.
"It's very important for the United States to actively engage in helping bring about negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis," said Obama, an Illinois senator who is vying against Democratic New York Sen. Clinton for the right to face Republican John McCain in the November election.
Obama said the United States should put its diplomatic energies into encouraging negotiations between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah organization opposes Hamas, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Carter's meeting with Hamas leaders has created awkwardness for Obama, whose critics have sought to raise doubts about the strength of his support for Israel so as to weaken his standing with U.S. Jewish voters.
Carter has not publicly backed either candidate in the Democratic race but hinted recently that he supports Obama.
Hamas won a 2006 election in Gaza and briefly cooperated with Abbas. Its militants seized military control of Gaza after several days of fighting against Fatah in June.
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(additional reporting by Jeff Mason, editing by Bill Trott and Alan Elsner)