Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – Visiting Lebanon this week, former President Jimmy Carter has not ruled out a meeting with representatives of Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored terrorist organization which prior to 9/11 was responsible for more American terror-related deaths than any other organization.
Carter is due to visit Lebanon and Syria this week, the Carter Center in Atlanta said in a statement on Friday.
The center, which monitors elections around the world, is considering observing parliamentary elections in Lebanon scheduled for next spring, and the former president’s visit aims to assess the situation.
“During his visit, President Carter will discuss recent developments in Lebanon and the Middle East with officials and representatives of major political blocs in parliament and civil society leaders,” said center representative Hrair Balianion.
Asked whether this would include a meeting with Hezbollah, which is part of a pro-Syrian bloc in the Lebanese parliament, the center did not deny that this was a possibility, but told CNSNews.com the schedule was not finalized.
“We are in contact with major parliamentary blocs, and we anticipate meeting with almost all,” Carter’s press secretary Deanna Congileo said in an emailed response.
“However, our schedule in Lebanon is not finalized, and I can’t confirm who he will be meeting with at this point.”
Long a fixture on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, Hezbollah also operates as a political party in Lebanon. Along with other pro-Syrian groups it has controlling veto power over the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The English-language Lebanese news site Naharnet reported that Carter would meet with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Siniora, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri as well as “representatives of several parliamentary blocs, including Hezbollah.”
Set up with the help of Iran shortly after the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Hezbollah in 1983 was blamed for a series of suicide bombings at the U.S. Embassy and a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, and another at a French military barracks. The embassy bombing cost the lives of 60 people, 17 of them Americans. The Marine barracks bombing killed 241 people, mostly U.S. Marines. Sixty French soldiers were also killed in the bombing of the French barracks.
Hezbollah targeted America again when in 1985 it hijacked TWA flight 847 en route from Athens to Rome, demanding the release of more than 700 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The hijackers singled out Robert Stethem, 23, a U.S. Navy diver, tortured and murdered him, and threw his body on the tarmac at the Beirut airport.
One of the hijackers, Mohammed Ali Hamadi, was arrested, tried and convicted of Stethem’s murder and sentenced to life in jail in Frankfurt, Germany, but controversially released in 2005. He returned to Lebanon and Hezbollah.
Another of the perpetrators, notorious terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah, was killed in an as-yet unclaimed Damascus bomb blast earlier this year.
Hezbollah has also been linked to the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in the early 1990s, at the cost of 114 lives, and to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
Other attacks researchers have attributed to Hezbollah include a series of bombings in Paris in 1986, which killed 13; an unsuccessful attempt to carry out attacks in Cyprus in 1988; a plot, foiled by Spanish police, to carry out attacks against Jewish targets in Europe in 1989; an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a car bomb outside a Jewish community building in Romania in 1992; the bombing of a small passenger plane carrying 18 passengers in Panama in 1994; and a planned 1996 attack, also foiled by police, on an Israeli institution in Paris.
Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, in 2002 called Hezbollah a member of the international terrorist “A-team.”
Hezbollah has had a controlling veto in the Lebanese government since the summer.
The current policy guidelines of that government imply that Hezbollah can keep its weapons and guarantees “the right of the Lebanon’s people, army, and resistance to liberate” what it calls “Israeli-occupied” areas and “defend the country using all legal and possible means.”
According to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, the Lebanese government was meant to disarm Hezbollah. Instead, Israeli official say Hezbollah has tripled its pre-war armaments with Iranian and Syrian help and now possesses some 40,000 short- and medium-range missiles.
Carter caused controversy when he visited the Middle East in April. Although advised by Washington not to meet with leaders of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas – whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel – he did so anyway.
He said at the time that Israel and the U.S. “refuse to meet with these people who must be involved” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Israeli leaders were furious and most refused to meet with Carter. Israel, the U.S. and other members of the Middle East Quartet have boycotted Hamas since it won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections – also observed by the Carter Center – in 2006.
They are demanding that Hamas abandon terrorism, recognize Israel and abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Until then, Israel says there is no point in talking to the group.
Carter said at the time that Israel’s fierce objections to his meetings with Hamas leaders had added “spice and humor” to his trip to the region.
He also laid a wreath at the tomb of former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, dubbed the “godfather of terrorism.”
During his visit to the Middle East this week, Carter is also scheduled to address students, faculty and invited guests at the American University of Beirut. He will speak on “30 years after Camp David: A memo to the Arab World, Israel and the Quartet,” the Carter Center said. In 1978, Carter brokered negotiations at Camp David that led the following year to the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.
Carter also is scheduled to travel to Damascus, where he will meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad and other officials “to discuss the prospects for peace in the Middle East.”