Analyze This: Carter and Hamas

Little good is expected to come from his meeting with Mashaal.

carter laughing 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
carter laughing 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
When it comes to dealing with Hamas, the record of former US president Jimmy Carter is hardly auspicious. As Carter himself noted in a piece written for The New York Times six years ago: "In January 1996, with full support from Israel and responding to the invitation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Carter Center helped to monitor a democratic election in the West Bank and Gaza that was well organized, open and fair... When the election was over, I made a strong effort to persuade the leaders of Hamas to accept the election results, with Mr. Arafat as their leader. I relayed a message offering them full participation in the process of developing a permanent constitutional framework for the new political entity, but they refused to accept this proposal." Two years ago, despite Hamas having neither renounced terror, put aside its weapons, nor agreed to honor prior Palestinian Authority commitments, Carter declared to Yediot Aharonot that their inclusion in West Bank and Gaza elections would be "a demonstration of the commitment of most Palestinians to democracy. That would be the result of Hamas's candidates being successful in gaining seats within the Palestinian Authority. My hope is that this will moderate their position and lead to their transformation to a non-violent organization." Shortly after the vote, Carter told CNN of his discussions with the victorious Hamas leadership: "They told me they want to have a peaceful administration. They want to have a unity government, bring in Fatah members and independent members. What they say and what they do [though], is two different matters." Indeed. In that same interview, Carter helpfully suggested in dealing with the new PA regime: "If there are prohibitions - like, for instance, in the United States, against giving any money to a government that is controlled by Hamas - then the US could channel the same amount of money to the Palestinian people through the United Nations, through the refugee fund, through UNICEF, things of that kind." Yet just a year later, when Hamas staged a violent coup to seize control of Gaza, and the US and EU did exactly what Carter had suggested, the ex-president declared that this represented an "effort to divide Palestinians into two peoples." And now Carter is on his way to huddle with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, supposedly "to ascertain what flexibility they have, to try to induce them to stop all attacks against innocent civilians in Israel and to cooperate with the Fatah as a group that unites the Palestinians, maybe to get them to agree to a cease-fire." Given Carter's record in conducting such conversations with Hamas - and with a long list of dictators over the past three decades, including Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Slobodan Milosevic and many, many more - it is fairly safe to expect little good to emerge from that discussion. Or, for that matter, from those he will be conducting here. As a former US chief executive, Carter will be given the formality of a sit-down with our own president, Shimon Peres, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have all prudently made sure that "scheduling problems" do not permit such an encounter. The real reason is, of course, Carter's meeting with Mashaal and his increasing virulent criticism of Israeli policy, climaxing with the 2006 publication of his polemic Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. He has become such a polarizing figure in his own country that the Olmert government is correct in assessing that such a snub to an ex-president will have little impact in the US beyond those who already share Carter's views of this country. Much has been written of Carter - perhaps too much, given his status as an unpopular leader during his time in the White House, and a reputation that initially was widely respected during his first decades out of office but has become increasingly muddied in recent years. Though he and his Carter Center are active across the globe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular has been a focus of his efforts, especially during the past decade. His religious background and the fact that the Camp David agreement was the only outstanding achievement of his presidency are most often cited as the reasons behind this interest - although one cannot discount the fact that it is his dealings on this issue that generate the most headlines and publicity. So it would be more useful here to instead examine Carter's historical role in another part of the world - one now in exactly the kind of political crisis with which the former president specializes in involving himself, yet oddly enough seems little inclined to do this time. Perhaps this is because Carter believes the less said about his involvement with Zimbabwe, the better. It was the Carter administration that pressed Zimbabwe to include Robert Mugabe in the 1980 elections that brought the guerrilla leader to power, despite the fact that he - like the leadership of Hamas - had also not renounced violence or pledged to respect democratic norms. Shortly afterward, Carter welcomed Mugabe to Washington. This is how Time magazine reported that visit: "'I came, I saw, I was conquered,' Robert Mugabe, prime minister of Zimbabwe, declared expansively after a rousing welcome last week in the East Room of the White House... While Mugabe received little beyond goodwill from the president, the prime minister remained in high spirits at a sumptuous gathering in the East Room. He thanked Carter for supporting the establishment of Zimbabwe and even endorsed the president for reelection. Earlier, Mugabe had explained his presidential preference with a wry anecdote from his boyhood. He had wanted to exchange his hunting dog for one that might bring in more game, but his grandfather asked him: 'How do you know that the dog you want to buy will be as dependable as the dog you already know?' Recalled Mugabe: 'Well, I didn't give up the dog.'" Well, as they say in Carter's part of America, here in Israel we learned a while ago this dog don't hunt. Whatever Jimmy Carter's intentions, as he travels on to Damascus to speak with Mashaal he might want to contemplate the Mugabe legacy in Zimbabwe that he helped to create - and the Hamas one for the Palestinians that he is only helping to encourage.