Carter’s Quest for Mideast Peace

When Jimmy Carter was recently praised for bringing “honesty and pragmatism to the Middle East,” it wasn’t anybody in Washington or Jerusalem who expressed appreciation for Carter’s meetings with Hamas representatives during his latest trip to the region. The praise came instead from Gaza, via the Washington Post, which gave Mahmoud al-Zahar, the “foreign minister” of Hamas, the opportunity to outline the group’s views on peace in the Middle East. But as an editorial printed opposite to Zahar’s piece noted, Zahar left little doubt that Hamas has no interest in a negotiated peace. Indeed, the uncompromising stance expressed by Zahar is that:

A ‘peace process’ with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently. This would provide the starting point for just negotiations and would lay the groundwork for the return of millions of refugees.

As if to mock Carter, Hamas also staged an attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing that is used to transfer essential goods into Gaza: Just hours before Carter was meeting the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damasus — and shortly before the beginning of the weeklong Passover holiday in Israel — the crossing point was attacked by jeeps packed with explosives that were detonated near the Israeli soldiers guarding the crossing. This attack was the fifth terrorist incident along the border with Israel in 10 days.

Unsurprisingly, Carter still came away with the impression that “Hamas is prepared to accept Israel’s right to ‘live in peace’ within 1967 borders.” Even dovish Israeli commentators noted that there were “discrepancies . . . between what Carter says he was told and what Hamas leaders say”; and it certainly seemed fair to summarize the results of the trip with the headline “Peanuts for Carter.”

In the end, Carter himself had to admit that he did not achieve much when Hamas rejected his proposal to stop the constant barrage of rockets fired from Gaza for one month as a goodwill gesture. “I did the best I could,” Carter reportedly said. “They turned me down, and I think they’re wrong.”

Palestinians apparently have a different view on this: According to a recent poll, popular support for “resistance operations,” including bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, is on the rise and is indeed considerably higher in Gaza than in the West Bank. One could therefore conclude that the policy of isolating Hamas in Gaza has little positive effect. At the same time, Carter’s efforts of engaging Hamas hardly yielded results that would justify the optimism of those who insist that dialogue with the militant group would lead to the adoption of a more moderate stance. On the other hand, it certainly still makes sense to persist with the current efforts pursued by Egypt to negotiate specific agreements about the management of Gaza’s borders or a temporary ceasefire.