DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Hamas engaged in an internal debate on Saturday over proposals put forth by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter for a unilateral ceasefire with Israel and more political flexibility, Palestinian politicians said.
Carter left the Syrian capital on Saturday for Riyadh after an early morning meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
Carter and Meshaal held more than four hours of talks on Friday night that discussed how the Islamist group could be drawn into a Middle East peace plan and drop its opposition to peace talks between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah faction.
Carter demanded that Hamas stops firing rockets on Israel while he pursues efforts with Israel and the West to lift the siege on the Gaza strip, which is ruled by Hamas, politicians familiar with the meetings said.
"Carter also asked Meshaal to adopt more flexible public statements and talked to him as a leader of a national liberation movement, not as the terrorist Israel and America try to depict him as being," one of the sources told Reuters.
"Meshaal is a first among equals in Hamas. He has to secure agreement from the rest of the Hamas leadership," he added.
Carter's willingness to meet officials from Hamas has drawn criticism from Israel and the United States, which both regard as a terrorist group.
Hamas is led by Meshaal and other exiled politburo members, as well as members with presence on the ground in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Hamas also has links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt.
Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar and former Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, two Hamas officials living in Gaza who met Carter in Cairo last week, are due in Damascus later on Saturday for consultations with the leadership in exile about Carter's proposals.
Carter said the Hamas officials had told him in Cairo they would accept a peace agreement with Israel negotiated by Abbas if the Palestinians approved it in a referendum. Israel and the United States, its chief ally, have criticized Carter's willingness to initiate contacts with Hamas.
But in a proposal passed to Carter this week, an Israeli cabinet minister offered to meet high-level Hamas officials to ask for the release of a soldier being held by Hamas, a move which would depart from official Israeli government policy.
Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work helping to resolve conflicts and championing human rights, raised the issue of corporal Gilad Shalit with Meshaal.
Hamas officials, however, indicated that their offer of releasing Shalit in exchange for 600 Palestinian prisoners in Israel was "reasonable" considering that there were 11,000 Palestinians prisoners in Israeli captivity.
Diplomats said the impact of Carter's visit to Syria would be better gauged after he returns to Jerusalem next week and conveys to Israeli politicians his impression of the positions of Hamas.
"No one expected Carter to come out of Hamas's headquarters in Damascus holding Shalit's hand," one of the diplomats said.