Why we hosted Carter

"Who would we be punishing by sticking our fingers in our ears? Jimmy Carter or us?"

carter (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
There was much soul-searching in the office of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations. Should former president of the United States Jimmy Carter be invited to speak about his visit to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia? Should we not follow the example of the prime minister, the foreign minister and the defense minister who decided to boycott him? His harsh criticism of Israel's actions in the occupied territories and his accusation that our policy bordered on apartheid were, in the opinion of some of the colleagues at the council, ample reasons for not inviting him. Boycotting can sometimes be a very effective weapon. But not always. Back in the 1980s, when the PLO was our most vicious enemy, the government passed a decree forbidding its representatives from participating in organizations that accepted PLO delegates. The result was that Israel refused to attend dozens of international conferences - from sessions of the International Postal Union to a large variety of different groupings, some of which were very important for us - because of the presence of the PLO. What we were doing was tantamount to boycotting ourselves. Instead of harming the PLO we were isolating ourselves. Our foreign minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, certainly no lover of the PLO but a man driven by a very healthy common sense (in my opinion one of the better foreign ministers that Israel has fielded), realized that we were shooting ourselves in the foot and had the boycott decree canceled. Who would we be punishing by sticking our fingers in our ears and refusing to listen to what Jimmy Carter had to report on his Middle Eastern tour? Carter or us? More importantly, the Council for Foreign Relations, which is an independent apolitical body, believes in hearing different views, not necessarily those that are identified with official Israeli thinking. Over the years, it has hosted many distinguished guest speakers, some of whom were highly critical of Israel's policies - UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, for example, or Quartet emissary James Wolfensohn, or Amr Moussa when he was foreign minister of Egypt, to name just a few. There were two other considerations that clinched the decision to invite Carter. The treaty of peace between Egypt and Israel was, perhaps, the most important event in the 60 years of Israel's existence as a modern state; it changed the entire strategic equation of Israel. Without the single-minded determination of Carter, it is doubtful if the tremendous obstacles blocking the agreement would have been surmounted, and for that we are indebted to him. And, in addition, we are, after all, speaking of a former president of the United States, our closest ally, and that, in itself, was ample reason to invite him. The fact that the president of Israel and our deputy prime minister, Eli Yishai, met with him also had an effect. The large hall in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was packed; no more room even for standing. Ambassadors, former ministers, dozens of journalists and a huge turnout of council members came to hear what the former president had to say. I had feared demonstrations or, at the very least, hostile questions, but my fears were groundless. I had in the past disliked Jimmy Carter's penchant to show largesse in voicing criticism against us and paucity when it came to criticizing the Palestinians, but in his speech at the King David Hotel he tried to be more even-handed. He called the firing of Kassams on Sderot "despicable" - a strong word indeed - and "an act of terrorism," and said he had used these expressions in his talk with the Hamas leaders. Hamas, he declared, should recognize Israel and renounce violence: "We insisted on these things." There were no earth-shattering revelations in his speech. Yet there were renewed commitments that are worth recording. For example, the statement by Khaled Mashaal that Hamas would "accept a peace agreement negotiated between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert if submitted a) to the Palestinian people in a referendum monitored by the Carter Center and other international bodies or b) to a newly elected Palestine National Council;" or that Hamas is prepared to negotiate an agreement with Abbas to create a government of national consensus "composed of technocrats belonging neither to Fatah nor to Hamas, but approved by both. This nonpartisan group would govern at least until the scheduled elections in 2010." Carter's efforts to achieve a prisoner exchange, and a truce between Hamas and Israel, were stymied by the progress Hamas has already achieved in its negotiations with the Egyptians on these two subjects. Carter decries the fact that neither the US nor we are willing to talk to Hamas. "The current strategy isolating and suppressing Hamas is not working. It only exacerbates the cycle of violence," he said, adding: "Peace is not sustainable unless a way can be found to ensure that Hamas will not disrupt the peace negotiations." This is a subject that has divided our government. Some ministers, such as National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, have openly expressed their belief that it is necessary to talk to Hamas; others have expressed support for a truce, especially now that Hamas has agreed to a separate truce in Gaza from Judea and Samaria. Carter's comments on his meeting with President Bashar Assad of Syria were intriguing, especially in view of the rumors of the last two days of messages from Israel to the effect that we would be willing to withdraw from all of the Golan. "Senior [Syrian] government officials pledged to complete an agreement on the Golan Heights and peace with Israel as soon as possible... Since the Syrian government considers that about 85 percent of the issues have been resolved in prior negotiations, it believes the agreement should be completed soon." According to the former president, the Syrians claim that there has been agreement on the borders, riparian rights as they apply to the Sea of Galilee, security zones, and - most interestingly - the presence of international forces. Did Carter's meeting with Hamas leaders cause any harm to the present policy of isolating Hamas? Egypt has been openly negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hamas, and so have we, indirectly through the Egyptians. Yishai, who asked Carter to arrange a meeting with Mashaal for him, was not reprimanded. Informal meetings have been taking place for a long time - Rabbi Menahem Froman of Tekoa with one of the most extreme members of Hamas, Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, for example. So we have no reason to criticize Carter for his meeting with Hamas; if the Americans wish to do so, that is their business. Carter has, indeed, been very critical of Israel's behavior in the occupied territories. Some of his contentions have been justified - suffice, for example, to see the behavior of the settlers in Hebron. Some have not. We tend to look upon all criticism as something reprehensible, bordering on anti-Semitism. As a free and democratic society, perhaps we should be more tolerant of criticism, and not brand automatically all those who criticize us as haters of Israel, or of Jews. Carter has been much too one-sided in his criticism, and yet the large audience that heard his speech to the Israel Council for Foreign Relations were impressed by his sincerity and appreciative of his efforts. And for that, it was well worthwhile to have invited him. The writer, a former director of the Foreign Ministry, is president of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations.