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Carter to Israel: Talk with Abbas

Former president offers support for Senate immigration bill

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Former President Jimmy Carter

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Former President Jimmy Carter said Wednesday that he opposes the House's version of immigration legislation, and he encouraged Israel to negotiate directly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke with Carter, a Democrat and frequent critic of Bush administration policies, at the end of a three-day human rights forum at The Carter Center in Atlanta.

BLITZER: You recently wrote in The Miami Herald this -- you said, "Competing legislation from the House of Representatives on immigration has strong racist overtones."

What specifically are you referring to?

CARTER: Well, it's such a punitive approach to the very sensitive issue of immigration. And I tried to point out in my editorial that these people who come to our country, and even the ones who employ them, are good, honest, hardworking, dedicated people.

And they don't need to be punished. And so I think whenever you single out a particular category of people for just punitive legislation, as I believe was done in the House version of the bill that might be passed, it does have overtones of distinguishing between a particular class of people.

BLITZER: So you're referring specifically to the House legislation, which would categorize these illegal immigrants as felons.

CARTER: That's correct, and also calls for the deportation of all of them. This and the categorization, as you just said, of everyone as a convicted criminal. This is not the proper approach [for] a nation that prides itself on being the champion of democracy, freedom and human rights.

BLITZER: The current president's plan calls for stronger border security, a guest-worker program and a path towards citizenship. It ... pretty much coincides with what senators [Edward] Kennedy and [John] McCain have in mind -- what the Senate certainly supports. But there is strong opposition in the House.

On this issue, I take it you don't have a lot of disagreement with President Bush.

CARTER: No, that's exactly right. I think that the approach that has been put forward and currently [is] being considered, the bill in the Senate, as supported, the way I understand it, by President Bush, is very compatible with ... my own views.

BLITZER: Should there have been legislation that makes English the official or national language of the U.S.?

CARTER: No, I don't think so. You know, we have gotten along for more than 200 years without excluding other languages.

This is a country that is kind of a melting pot for languages around the world. And I don't think there's any need for it.

It's just kind of one of those emotional issues that can turn one part of America against another. You know, we have survived OK without such language. And I think just to specifically say that it's the only language that we will accept officially is the wrong approach.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about human rights in the West Bank, in Gaza, the Palestinian-Israeli problem, which is clearly very much on your agenda right now.

You say the elections were very free, very fair, the elections that saw Hamas win and become the leader of this new Palestinian government.

Listen to what ... Ehud Olmert, the [Israeli] prime minister, said this week at the White House about this new Hamas-led Palestinian government:

"The rise of Hamas, a terrorist organization, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and regards terrorism as a legitimate tool, severely undermines the possibility of promoting a genuine peace process."

Is the peace process effectively dead right now?

CARTER: Well, it depends on the judgment to be made by Israel and the Palestinians and with a heavy influence from Washington.

There is now a very clearly identified interlocutor or negotiator who represents the Palestinian community from two points of view. One is the president of the Palestine National Assembly, and that is Mahmoud Abbas. And the other point of view is a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO. And that is the same person, Mahmoud Abbas.

And so he has been going around national capitals in Europe and other places during the last few months, strongly calling for direct talks between himself and representatives of the Israeli government. And there have been statements made even by Hamas leaders that they favor these direct talks between Abbas and representatives from Israel. So...

BLITZER: Mr. President, excuse me for interrupting. Olmert says that [Abbas] is powerless, he's helpless. He thinks he's a good man, but he ... has no longer the authority to deliver anything.

CARTER: Well, I don't want to get into a debate with the prime minister of Israel, whom I respect very much. But the fact is that there are only two positions that are distinct positions of authority.

One is the head of the Palestinian government, and the other is the head of the [Palestine] Liberation Organization. And the PLO is the only organization, as you know, that the government of Israel recognizes.

So Abbas can speak for the Palestinian community officially. He's also been the one in the past, as you know, that was endorsed by the United States government under President Bush and by the Israeli government under the former prime minister of Israel, [Ariel] Sharon.

So if there is a desire to have peace talks, obviously, the Palestinians have a representative who can speak for the Palestinian people.

BLITZER: Israel is saying, the government of Israel, that if there are no negotiations, Israel will take unilateral action to disengage, as he calls it, from the West Bank, at least from parts of the West Bank.

I know you've written an article suggesting that would be an illegal land grab, words to that effect... . I asked Olmert about your article on "Late Edition" last Sunday. Here's what he said about your comments. Listen to this:

"I have enormous respect for President Carter, who [comes] to visit me every now and then when he's in Israel. I think some of his statements are different than the ones he writes when he's far away.

"But I think that the basic point is this: Shall we negotiate with a terrorist government? I don't know that there is one serious American representative that will advise Israel to sit with a terrorist government and negotiate with them."

Do you want to comment on that?

CARTER: I think I just have, Wolf. I'm not advocating that Prime Minister Olmert negotiate with the Hamas organization. I'm advocating they negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas, who is the president of the Palestinian organization, the government. And also the head of the PLO.

I haven't advocated that assistance of economic character be given through the Hamas government. What I've advocated is that humanitarian assistance only be given directly to the people in the West Bank and Gaza through the United Nations agencies, perhaps. Through the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, through UNICEF and other organizations -- bypassing the Hamas government.

So there's a difference between Hamas on the one hand, with whom Israel will not negotiate and which the United States cannot recognize, and the Palestinian people on the other. And their own chosen president and leader of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas.

BLITZER: Mr. President, I want to leave it on a happy note. This week, you and your former vice president, Walter Mondale, became the longest living ex-president and ex-vice president in American history, beating [John] Adams and [Thomas] Jefferson. ...

CARTER: Thank you, Wolf. All you have to do is live a long life and choose a healthy vice president.

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