DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The Islamist Hamas group said on Monday it would accept the establishment of a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, but it was not prepared to recognize the Jewish state.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, in an apparent softening of the group’s position, was confirming an account of his remarks given by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter after two meetings in Damascus over the weekend.
“We accept a state on the June 4 line with Jerusalem as capital, real sovereignty and full right of return for refugees but without recognizing Israel,” Meshaal told reporters, referring to the borders as they stood before the 1967 war.
Meshaal, whom Carter seeks to draw into peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel, said his Islamist group would “respect Palestinian national will even if it was against our convictions”.
Washington, which refuses to deal with Hamas and has not backed Carter’s mission, said it saw no change in the group’s positions.
“I think you can take it with a grain of salt. We have to look at the public comments and we also have to look at actions, and actions speak louder than words,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
An Israeli government spokesman also said the Jewish state was unimpressed by Meshaal’s statement.
“Israel is targeted on a daily basis by rocket barrages from Hamas controlled territory in the Gaza Strip. Israel sees no change in Hamas’s extremist positions,” said David Baker, a spokesman in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office.
In a speech in Jerusalem, Carter said Hamas leaders had told him they would “accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians”. He was referring to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and a referendum on a deal Washington hopes to clinch this year.
“It means that Hamas will not undermine Abbas’s efforts to negotiate an agreement and Hamas will accept an agreement if the Palestinians support it in a free vote,” he said.
But Carter said Meshaal, whom he met on Friday and Saturday and telephoned on Monday over U.S. and Israeli objections, turned down his appeal for a unilateral ceasefire with Israel to end violence threatening peace efforts.
“I did the best I could on that,” Carter said of his failure to persuade Hamas to halt rocket fire from the Gaza Strip it has controlled since it ousted Abbas’s secular Fatah movement.
Carter said his understandings with Hamas called for a referendum to be preceded by reconciliation between the group and Abbas’s Fatah faction. Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June and Abbas has demanded the territory’s return.
Gaza-based Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Palestinian refugees living in exile must take part in a referendum — a condition that could dim the chances of approval since Israel opposes their mass return to what is now the Jewish state.
Abu Zuhri also noted Hamas would see any future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as “transitional”.
Speaking later to reporters, Carter said Hamas leaders whom he met “didn’t say anything about transitional”.
Unlike Abbas, who sought a Palestinian state side-by-side with the Jewish state, Abu Zuhri said Hamas’s outstanding position not to recognize Israel’s right to exist remained unchanged despite its acceptance of a state in 1967 borders.
Carter, who helped negotiate a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, said excluding Hamas, which the United States, Israel and the European Union brand a terrorist group, “is just not working”.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to see Carter, who has been critical of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, during a regional visit that began on April 13.
“We believe that the problem is not that I met Hamas in Syria,” Carter said in his address to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. “The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with these people, who must be involved.”
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still controls its borders and has tightened its restrictions on the enclave since Hamas’s takeover.
Carter said he proposed to Meshaal a rapid exchange of prisoners between Israel, which is holding more than 11,000 Palestinians, and Hamas, which along with other militant groups captured an Israeli soldier in 2006 on the Gaza border.
Editing by Ralph Boulton