Carter with Noam Shalit, father of Hamas captive Gilad
You could say Jimmy Carter was tempting fate by meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal — after all, his entirely appropriate evocation of apartheid in reference to the regime Israel has created on the West Bank earned him the label “Holocaust-denier” from the more demented end of the American Zionist spectrum. But Carter, bless him, is sticking to his guns, making the rather straightforward adult argument that has eluded so much of the U.S. political mainstream that the only way to achieve peace is to talk to all of those whose consent it requires.
And I’d say Carter has reason to suspect that despite the pro-forma criticisms of his Meshal meeting from Secretary of State Condi Rice as well as the McCain-Clinton-Obama roadshow, the backlash won’t be anything like the firestorm created by his apartheid book. It was reported today, in fact, that the Bush Administration is regularly briefed on back-channel talks between Iranian officials and a group of former U.S. diplomats led by Papa Bush’s U.N. ambassador, Thomas Pickering. So, far all the posturing and bluster, there’s a back channel. And I’d wager that despite the official sanctimony, Carter will be debriefed on his conversations with Meshal by both Israeli and American officials — because Meshal is a key player, like it or not.
The inevitability of talking with Hamas is already widely recognized in U.S. policy circles, and especially in Israel. Already, the Israelis negotiate secretly over issues such as the fate of Corporal Gilad Shalit, prisoner exchanges and a cease-fire with Hamas through intermediaries such as Egypt. And a poll published by the Israeli daily Haaretz in February showed that two out of three Israelis support direct talks between their government and Hamas — an option publicly advocated by such high-profile Israeli leaders as former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy and former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami.
Noam Shalit, father of Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit who has been held by Hamas for almost two years now, expressed a profound understanding of what the U.S. role in the region ought to be, after meeting with Carter. The fact that Carter isn’t perceived as biased towards Israel, he said, would actually help him mediate! Now there’s a basic truth about the proper U.S. role that has been ignored since Bill Clinton bumbled his way through the peace process.
The Bush Administration, needing to maintain its vacuous John Wayne facade, won’t publicly concede that its policies on Hamas have failed and open talks; as with Iran, it prefers to “outsource” such initiatives (to Egypt, for example) for purposes of plausible deniability. But those, like Carter, who’re not running for office, are able to freely advocate talking to Hamas as a matter of urgency. Even Colin Powell has added his voice to the chorus of foreign policy grownups advocating the option. “They’re not going to go away,” Powell said of Hamas on National Public Radio last year. “And we have to remember that they enjoy considerable support among the Palestinian people. They won an election that we insisted on having.”
The Bush Administration failed to reckon with the reasons for Hamas’s victory, and, as a result, has spent the past two years vainly trying to reverse the election result — and has only made Hamas stronger as a result.
So while the Bush Administration may protest that Carter’s meeting with Meshal will weaken its efforts of isolating Hamas, everyone in the region knows that strategy has failed. The idea that it should be avoided so as not to weaken Mahmoud Abbas is idiotic — nothing has weakened Abbas as much as this policy of attacking Hamas while forcing the Palestinian Authority president to jump through hoops while the occupation continues to choke Palestinian life. Carter is simply making clear that it’s time to move on from that failed strategy, and to engage with the intractable fact of Hamas.
To demand as a precondition for such talks that Hamas “renounce” violence and “recognize” Israel is specious: The terms on which Hamas would abandon its strategy of violence ought to be the key subject of discussion with the organization, not a precondition for talking to it. As for “recognizing” Israel, it ought to be noted that the Palestine Liberation Organization amended its Charter to delete clauses denying recognition of Israel only five years after the Oslo Accords.
But just as bearing the burden of political responsibility for the Palestinian national fate had forced Fatah and the PLO to recognize the intractable reality of Israel — as distasteful as any Palestinian would find that, simply because the Palestinians as a people were forcibly displaced from three quarters of historic Palestine in the course of its creation. Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas negotiated with Israel because they recognized that it couldn’t be militarily defeated, not because they suddenly decided that the Palestinian national movement had been wrong all along.
Hamas may be slowly moving to the same point. In an important post on his blog South Jerusalem last week, Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenburg noted that Meshal, in an interview with the Palestinian paper al-Ayyam, appeared to signal acceptance of a two-state solution. Meshal reiterated Hamas’s support for the principles of the unity government, including negotiations with Israel in pursuit of a sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. “We are committed to the political platform on which we agreed with the other Palestinian forces and in convergence with the Arab position,” said Meshal, referring to the 2002 Arab League offer of full normalization of relations with Israel if it withdraws to its 1967 borders and resolves the refugee issue. “Thus all the international parties should deal with this political fact and judge the political platform to which we agreed. The challenge here is not to search in the minds of peoples but [look at] the offered political platform on the table and the American administration and the international community should work to get Israel to be committed to it … This is the way out. After that, whoever wants to recognize Israel or not, that would a matter of his personal convictions.” Hamas, in other words, is willing to abide by a Palestinian national consensus over a two-state solution. As Gorenburg writes, “He really wishes Israel would vanish, but that’s not his political program. He’d rather take a couple pills against nausea, and accept reality.”
No matter how distasteful he finds recognizing Israel, Meshal appears to acknowledge it as an established historical fact. And Carter’s visit is a sign that, no matter how distasteful they find Hamas’s own track record, a growing number of Americans and Israelis are beginning to recognize that, as Colin Powell put it, Hamas is “not going to go away.” The symmetry in their reasoning may have profound consequences. After all, peace between two warring parties convinced of the justice of their own cause only becomes possible when each recognizes the impossibility of eliminating the other by military means.