WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that former President Jimmy Carter's recent talks with the Palestinian group Hamas had not been helpful, and she disputed Carter's contention that no one in the government had tried to dissuade him from his mission.
"We counseled President Carter against going to the region and particularly against having contacts with Hamas," Rice told reporters in Kuwait, adding that the administration had "wanted to make sure there would be no confusion and there would be no sense that Hamas was somehow a party to peace negotiations."
The disagreement revived longstanding Bush administration tensions with the former president, an outspoken critic of American policies at a time when Israelis and Palestinians say their talks have reached a sensitive phase and Bush is planning another trip to Israel.
Carter met with leaders of Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, in separate meetings last week in Egypt, Syria, and the West Bank. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel objected to the contacts, and he and his Cabinet declined to meet with Carter.
On Monday, Carter said in Israel that he had obtained a significant concession regarding negotiations over a future Palestinian state, declaring that Hamas leaders said they would respect the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza if it were ratified by a referendum of all Palestinians.
But Israeli officials said that was no concession, in that Hamas subsequently said it would not recognize Israel and would insist on a right of Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homes, effectively ending Israel's identity as a Jewish state.
Beyond the assessment of Carter's talks was the delicate question of whether the administration had tried to dissuade him from making contact with Hamas. Since leaving office in 1981 Carter has rankled many successors with his contacts with those the government has sought to isolate.
Rice said yesterday that the State Department had advised Carter not to travel to the region or meet with Hamas, which the United States is trying to marginalize while it builds up moderates like Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.
However, a top aide to Carter who organized his trip, Robert A. Pastor, professor of international relations at American University, said yesterday that the only concern the administration expressed to Carter was over his security in traveling to Gaza, the West Bank, and Damascus for the meetings.
Pastor said Carter called Rice before going but that she was traveling and the two never made contact. Instead, Pastor said he and Carter spoke separately to C. David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.
"He did not say we should not meet with them for political reasons, but only for security reasons," Pastor said of Welch.
"When I said we would probably go anyway, he told us not to meet just with Hamas but with other Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere."
Pastor said Carter had met with Hamas leaders in 1996 and again in 2006.
But this was the first time that Carter held such high-level meetings, particularly with Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, who is based in Damascus. It was there that Carter also met with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Pastor said the issue of whether the State Department had given a green or even an amber light to Carter's trip was trivial compared with the issue of whether it was right to refuse to talk to Hamas. "For peace to be possible and sustainable you needed to find a way to get the spoilers into the process," he said.