ATLANTA - Former President Jimmy Carter apologized for any words or deeds that may have upset the Jewish community in an open letter meant to improve an often-tense relationship.

Carter, 85, said he was offering an Al Het, a prayer said on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It signifies a plea for forgiveness.

"We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel," Carter said in the letter, which was first sent to JTA, a wire service for Jewish newspapers, and provided yesterday to the Associated Press. "As I would have noted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but which is appropriate at any time of the year, I offer an Al Het for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so."

Carter, who during his 1977-81 presidency brokered the first Israeli-Arab peace treaty, outraged many Jews with his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Critics contend that he unfairly compared Israeli treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the legalized racial oppression that once existed in South Africa.

Israeli leaders have also shunned him over his journey to Gaza to meet with Hamas, which is considered a terror group by the United States, Israel, and the European Union.

Carter's apology was welcomed by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a vocal critic of Carter's views on Israel.

"When a former president reaches out to the Jewish community and asks for forgiveness, it's incumbent of us to accept it," Foxman said from Jerusalem. "To what extent this is an epiphany, only time will tell. There certainly was a lot of hurt, a lot of angry words that need to be repaired. But this is a good start."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations declined to comment.

Carter did not explain his timing, but the letter comes weeks after his grandson Jason Carter said he would run for a Georgia State Senate seat being vacated by David Adelman, President Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

The northeast Atlanta district has a vocal Jewish population. Jason Carter, in a statement, said his grandfather's letter was completely unrelated to his campaign and hailed the apology as a "great step toward reconciliation."

The former president's letter said he hoped bloodshed and hatred would yield to mutual respect and cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has long said that bringing peace to the Middle East remains one of his unfulfilled goals.