Carter: No Mideast peace without Hamas

Mashaal complains that Obama is setting Hamas preconditions for dialogue, but not Syria or Iran.

Carter Syria 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Carter Syria 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Former President Jimmy Carter Thursday reiterated that there can be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians without involving Hamas. His comments came shortly before he met with the group's Syrian-based leader, Khaled Mashaal. Carter met with Mashaal twice under the Bush administration, angering some in the US government who said he was legitimizing a group the US considers a terrorist organization. But this was his first meeting under the Obama administration, which has launched a fresh quest for peace in the Middle East, and came as Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was less than 400 miles (645 kilometers) away in Cairo preparing to visit Syria Friday. Carter, who went to Syria after observing elections in neighboring Lebanon, stressed that he was in Damascus as a private citizen and not representing the Obama administration. Obama, also a Democrat, seems to be going in the direction that Carter has long advocated - engagement with longtime foes Iran and Syria. So far Obama, like the Bush administration, has drawn the line at meeting with Hamas. But in a speech in Cairo last week, Obama seemed to suggest some basis for believing that Palestinian factions who rule Gaza might be drawn into the peace process. As president, Carter helped broker an Israeli-Egyptian peace deal in the late 1970s and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts to promote peace around the world. He has continued to pursue Mideast peace through his Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center foundation, and angered many Israelis for his 2006 book that compared Israel's policies toward the Palestinians in the West Bank to apartheid. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Carter said Hamas and its more moderate Fatah rivals must reconcile so they can negotiate effectively with Israel. "I don't believe there is a possibility to have any peace between the Palestinians and Israel unless Hamas is involved directly in harmony with Fatah," he said. Carter said Obama's pressure on Israel to freeze construction in West Bank settlements is an essential step toward restarting peace efforts. He said Israel is "very eager to avoid any serious disagreement or confrontation" with the US and that Obama's push for a two-state solution would be seriously considered by Israel. Carter also plans meetings in Israel and the West Bank over the weekend. Syria's official news agency reported that Assad discussed with Carter ways to reactivate the peace process and stressed that Damascus is committed to peace that guarantees the return of Arab rights. Meanwhile, Mashaal complained that Obama was presenting Hamas with preconditions ahead of entering into dialogue while he was not insisting on these preconditions regarding both Syria and Iran. "Obama adopted a new language for speaking with Hamas," Mashaal told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, adding, "We hope this will translate into actions on the ground, and that he will cancel the preconditions for talking to Hamas." However, he said, Obama "is turning over a new leaf with the region and is beginning dialogue with the Iranians and the Syrians without preconditions, so why is he setting preconditions for Hamas?" On Tuesday night, Mashaal had said, "Hamas will be a positive force in helping to find a fair solution for the Palestinian people and enabling them to fulfill their rights. "Hamas will not be an obstacle. Everyone knows that Israel is the obstacle," he had said. In his Cairo address, Obama called on Hamas to end violence, abide by previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians and recognize Israel's legitimacy. While commending Obama's call to establish a Palestinian state, Mashaal criticized the president for the fact that his "perception of the Palestinian state is still vague, because he did not address the issue of territory, capital, right of return and a timetable for all of the above. These are critical points." The Damascus-based Hamas leader admitted that his organization was going through difficult times. "We have reached hard times… our rights were violated, we will present our vision," he said. On Tuesday, Mashaal had told Al Quds al Arabi, another London-based paper, that he would answer Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's upcoming policy speech with his own vision for the future of the region. In Thursday's interview to Asharq, Mashaal noted that Obama did not use the word "terror" when mentioning the Palestinian "resistance." But he expressed displeasure at Obama's comparison of the condition of the Palestinians to the history of blacks in the United States and South Africa. "We in Palestine face an occupation. An occupation is to be fought with arms according to all criteria of international law."