Carter to Talk With Hamas

WASHINGTON -- Former President Jimmy Carter said he feels "quite at ease" about meeting Hamas militants over the objections of Washington because the Palestinian group is essential to a future peace with Israel.

Carter appeared to be getting a cool reception in Israel because of his planned meeting with the head of Hamas. A schedule released by the U.S.-based Carter Center showed no plans for the former president to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or Defense Minister Ehud Barak during this week's visit, which was beginning Sunday.

The most prominent Israeli to meet with Carter will be President Shimon Peres, Israel's ceremonial head of state, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his role in the historic 1993 accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Carter also has meetings scheduled with several lawmakers, and is to visit Sderot, the southern Israeli town most frequently targeted by Gaza rocket squads.

Several State Department officials, including the secretary, Condoleezza Rice, criticized Carter's plans to talk in Syria this week with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in the first public contact in two years between a prominent American figure and the group. Carter said he had not heard the objections directly, although a State Department spokesman said earlier that a senior official from the department had called the former president.