By Mark C. Partridge
14 April 2008: Former President Jimmy Carter will be traveling in the Middle East and is expected to meet with leaders of Hamas this week-a move that has elicited strong reactions from parties in the U.S.
Politicians in Washington and on the campaign trail were quick to distance themselves from the trip. On the Democratic side, both the Clinton and Obama camps said they disagreed with the former president’s decision to meet with Hamas, while a spokesman for Senator John McCain called the
move “a serious and dangerous mistake.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also voiced her concern about the trip: “I find it hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is, in fact, the impediment to peace.” Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a strong supporter of the Jewish state, chimed in saying the move demonstrated “a lack of judgment typical of what [President Carter] does.”
Mr. Carter’s views on Israel have been criticized in the past. Last year, pro-Israel groups lambasted his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, for what they saw as anti-Semitism.
Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in 2006, has been designated a terrorist organization by the west for its avowed resistance to Israel’s existence, and isolated by the Bush Administration in favor for the more moderate Fatah movement and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip, continues to launch rocket attacks against Israeli cities, such as Sderot, and there is evidence that it is building up its arsenal in case of a war with Israel.
Mr. Carter, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, defended his decision to meet with the group-including its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal-in Syria, pointing out that he has held previous meetings with Hamas and that he is not going in any official capacity on behalf of the U.S. government. The former president told ABC News:
“It’s very important that at least someone meet with the Hamas leaders to express their views, 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.”
Furthermore, he stated that “if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process.”
This episode raises a number of interesting questions, the foremost of which is whether to speak to one’s enemies. The U.S. has a track-record of cutting its diplomatic ties with a country or an adversary as the ultimate rebuke. Iran, as I have discussed before, is a case and point. However, what constructive gains are made by this move? On the one hand, the message is clear: We find your motives and actions to be wrong. But can the U.S. say the diplomatic isolation against Tehran or others has yielded results? I would venture to say no. (Importantly, that is not to say that gains do not come from other forms of isolation, including economic sanctions.)
The issue of talking to Hamas is a more complex one though as neither the U.S. nor Israel recognizes the group as the official government of the Palestinian people. Therefore, it is not an issue of speaking with or establishing relations with a foreign government. By speaking to Hamas, the U.S. and Israel would also be undermining Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, whom they have been supporting thus far. Even so, there are a growing number who believe that talking to Hamas would be beneficial, including a former head of the Mossad.
The other major issue is the importance of maintaining a consistent policy towards adversaries. If the decision has been made to hold a government in isolation, it is essential that as many nations and groups as possible also pursue this policy. Here, the old adage holds: A united front is only as good as its weakest link. The crisis in Darfur illustrates this truism better than anything else; no matter how hard the West presses, China’s oil purchases relieve any pressure on the Sudanese government.
In the case of Hamas, the Palestinian group has been able to turn to Iran and Syria for support, arms and funds. Simply ignoring a group or enemy not only does not produce positive results, but actually offers one’s adversaries opportunities to advance their own ambitions.
Would talks between the West/Israel and Hamas end this relationship? It’s difficult to say, but there is no doubt that the calculus of the Middle East would change.
So what do you think loyal readers? Should the West hold talks with Hamas, and other declared enemies? Is President Carter overstepping his bounds by speaking to a group his government does not recognize? And interestingly, if isolating a government is counterproductive, what tools are there to punish and weaken one’s adversaries?
Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.