Friday, April 25, 2008

Carter Meets with Hamas Leaders

The governments of Israel and the US refuse to negotiate with Hamas, the democratically elected government of Palestine, for four reasons, among them the fact that Hamas refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist. It is hard to conceive how Hamas' failure to do this could constitute a reason for refusing to engage in talks: mutual recognition between the two states of Israel and Palestine within fixed and agreed-upon borders ought to be the outcome not the precondition of talks. And, of course, the demand is not reciprocal, since the government of Israel is not being asked to recognize the right of Palestine to exist.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking why Hamas won't just agree. They have in fact been quite clear about this for more than a decade: there is no mandate among the Palestinian people for formal recognition of Israel. Those with long memories will remember the PLO going down exactly the same path, a path that led ultimately to the defeat of Fatah in the Palestinian elections to the legislative council and to their disgraceful role in the failed coup sponsored by the US in Gaza and reported recently in Vanity Fair.

Instead of formal recognition, Hamas has offered a decade-long truce or hudna if Israeli forces withdraw to the Green Line. Now Hamas appears to have gone a step further by agreeing, in a question posed by former US President Jimmy Carter, to abide by any agreement with Israel that is ratified by the Palestinian people. Such an agreement could then include a formal recognition of Israel. Carter's report has been greeted with stony silence (as well as claims, denied by Carter, that the Bush administration asked him not to meet with Hamas). But there is now no detectible practical difference between Hamas' position and formal recognition. If either the US or Israel were interested in negotiating a genuine solution, they would embrace such moves by Hamas. The fact that they are not implies that they prefer the current status quo, with all its injustice and oppression.

The interview with Carter that appeared on National Public Radio (transcript below) is well worth reading for the deft manner in which Carter fends off criticism.

Alistair Welchman

Ex-President Carter Meets with Hamas Leaders

April 21, 2008 from Morning Edition

STEVE INSKEEP, host: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne.

Former President Jimmy Carter has finished a diplomatic mission that the Bush administration says it asked him not to take. President Carter met with leaders from the Palestinian group Hamas. That put him in the same room with a group that is blamed for terrorist acts, one the U.S. government refuses to meet. But one that Carter says must be met.

This morning he's on the line live from Jerusalem.

Mr. President, welcome back to the program.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: Thank you, Steve. It's good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: You left this meeting claiming a significant sounding concession from Hamas on the existence of Israel or a peace agreement that includes the existence of Israel. What was it?

President CARTER: Well, I'm here - I might make clear - not as a mediator or a negotiator, but just as a private citizen representing the Carter Center to talk to people who are excluded from the peace process that have to included at the end. And that's Hamas, as you already mentioned, but also equally significant is Syria.

So I proposed a series of questions to Hamas. One of the key ones was, will you accept any peace agreement that's negotiated by Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert - if it's submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum or either through a new government that would be elected? And we wrote out this question so there would be absolutely no question about it. And they said, yes, they would accept it, even if they strongly opposed some provisions in the peace agreement.

INSKEEP: I want to just restate that for laymen just so that we don't get lost here. You're saying you asked Hamas if the Palestinian people vote for peace, including recognition of Israel as a state would you accept that. And you were told the answer was yes?

President CARTER: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said today that your statements on this point, quote, "do not mean that Hamas is going to accept the results of the referendum." Have they already begun backing off what they told you?

President CARTER: I don't who he is. The ones I met with were the top leaders of Hamas, all of their politbureau members, including the leaders from inside Gaza, and also those who are in Syria. And they met all day yesterday with themselves - each other - and they gave me this response. So I don't know who that person is that you mentioned. But I don't think he's in the leadership position.

INSKEEP: So do you think you made a significant step toward peace here, Mr. President?

President CARTER: No. I don't claim to be achieving anything myself. I just presented a question so that it was unequivocal, put it in writing so there would be no question about any word in the - in the declaration, and they finally after hours of discussion accepted it as an answer that was yes.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, I want to play a little bit of tape here. This is a state department spokesman, Tom Casey, who was asked last week about your plan to meet with Hamas.
(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. TOM CASEY (Spokesman, State department): We didn't think it would be an appropriate gesture and encouraged him not to, in fact, meet with Hamas officials.

INSKEEP: And, of course, you know why, because of Hamas's record as a…

President CARTER: Well, let me say that before I came over here, I put in a call to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And she got on the telephone - she was in Europe - she got on the telephone to her deputy, David Welch, and he - I had a 20 minute conversation with him. He was quite positive. He never asked me or even suggested that I not come.

And then subsequently I saw all kinds of statements out of the state department that said they begged me not to come. They urged me not to come. All of that is absolutely false. They never once asked me not to come.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting, Mr. President, that perhaps the Bush administration would welcome some contact with Hamas even though they'd like to publicly disown any such contact?

President CARTER: I can't say that. The fact is that there are strong and daily negotiations between Israel and Hamas. And it's public knowledge. The mediators are the Egyptians, including the top intelligence officer in Egypt, Omar Suleiman. And we met with him. We met with President Mubarak.

And Israelis are putting forward proposals to the Egyptians. The Egyptians will share that with Hamas. Hamas gives them an answer. Egypt goes back to Jerusalem with the answer. That goes on every day.

So I'm not negotiating or mediating, but everybody knows that there are negotiations going on. And as a matter of fact, the deputy prime minister of Israel, asked me to arrange with Hamas, an agreement that he could participate personally in negotiations for the prisoner exchange.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that Israelis are already talking with Hamas and they know they're going to have to talk with Hamas in order to come to peace?

President CARTER: Absolutely. Sure. There's no doubt about it. There's no way to arrange a ceasefire. There's no way to have the prisoner exchange without direct talks. Maybe not direct, but through some intermediary and Egypt has been chosen.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. President, thanks very much for taking the time today. I appreciate it.

President CARTER: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jimmy Carter is a former president of the United States. He says, acting as a private citizen, he went to the Middle East and met with, among others, leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas.

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