DAMASCUS – Hamas is ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and although it will not recognize Israel it accepts the Jewish state’s right to "live as a neighbor", exiled chief Khaled Meshaal told a news conference on Monday.
"We accept a Palestinian state within the June 4 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital — a sovereign state without settlements — as well as the right of Palestinian refugees to return, but without recognition of Israel," he said.
Meshaal was making his first public comment following two meetings in Damascus with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who said earlier Monday Hamas told him it would accept the right of Israel "to live as a neighbor" if a peace deal was approved by a Palestinian referendum.
Meshaal, whom Carter seeks to draw into peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel, said his group would "respect Palestinian national will even if it was against our convictions."
Meshaal praised Carter for his "audacious and courageous" decision to meet Hamas officials, despite opposition from Israel and the United States, which consider the group a terrorist organization.
The Hamas chief told reporters that he had "rejected a proposal presented by Mr Carter for a unilateral ceasefire.
"He asked that Hamas stop launching rockets on Israel for 30 days in order to reach a truce."
But "Hamas wants a reciprocal ceasefire, the cessation of (Israeli) aggression and the blockade (on Gaza) is lifted," he said.
Meshaal said he had also informed Carter that "Hamas would prefer that the indirect negotiations on a prisoner exchange continue under the auspices of Egypt."
"We refuse to talk directly with the Israelis. There are indirect negotiations concerning the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and an exchange of prisoners. But we are vetoing direct negotiations" with Israel, insisted Meshaal.
But the Palestinian leader said, however, that Hamas was ready to hold discussions with U.S. officials. "We have no problem having talks with the United States," he said.
Washington Dismisses Progress
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.
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."
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.