WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Bush administration has urged former President Jimmy Carter not to go forward with plans to meet with the leader of Hamas, the State Department said Thursday.
Carter may meet next week in Damascus, Syria, with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, as part of a trip to the Middle East.
Carter spokeswoman Deanna Congileo told CNN she could not confirm or deny whether any specific meeting might take place during Carter's trip.
However, a Hamas official told CNN that Carter plans to meet with Meshaal, who lives in exile in Damascus to avoid being arrested or killed by Israel.
The meeting with him had been announced as including members of a council of world leaders, including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former South African President Nelson Mandela, but the group issued a statement Wednesday saying they were postponing the trip.
That statement was issued shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Annan.
The council of world leaders, known as "The Elders," was launched by Mandela. The group was to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia on a peace mission.
Last month The Elders released a statement saying their mission was to "help people understand the urgency of peace."
But in their statement released Wednesday, they said the group "had planned a visit to the region in April to meet and listen to representatives from government, civil society, business and the public in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The Elders will continue consultations with key leaders in the region and outside with the purpose of developing a comprehensive report, but have decided to postpone their visit."
A Carter Center news release issued Thursday says the former president "will lead a study miss
ion to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan April 13-21."
Accompanying him, it said, will be his wife, Rosalynn, and their son Jeffrey; former U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz; Dr. Robert Pastor, senior Carter Center advisor and professor of international relations at American University; and Hrair Balian, director of the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday the department would provide Carter with assistance on his trip, as is customary for a former president. But he added the State Department "would not participate in the planning or scheduling" or in any meetings with Hamas officials, and he counseled Carter against such talks.
"U.S. policy is that Hamas is a terrorist organization," McCormack said. "We don't believe it is in the interest of our policy or in the in the interest of peace to have such a meeting."
McCormack said that Assistant Secretary David Welch urged Carter in a phone call not to take part in the meeting, arguing doing so would be a detriment to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Carter, who served as president between 1977 and 1981, runs the Carter Center to promote global peace, health, democracy and human rights. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
He drew fire from Israel and Jewish groups over his latest book on the Middle East for his criticism of Israel's policy, which he said can be compared to apartheid.
Hamas, which won elections in 2006, split with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party last year after Hamas forcibly seized control of Gaza.
Washington considers Hamas a terrorist organization and has led a movement in the international community to isolate it.
In 2006, the Rev. Jesse Jackson met Meshaal during a visit to Syria against Bush administration wishes.
A meeting between Carter and Meshaal would take place amid calls from many experts in the United States and Israel to open up a dialogue with Hamas.
They claim the policy of isolation is not working.
A poll earlier this year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that 64 percent of Israelis favor direct talks with Hamas.