JERUSALEM (JTA) – Jimmy Carter is sounding a positive note about his meetings with Israel’s enemies, but few of the major players in the region seem to share the view that the former U.S. president achieved any significant progress.
Though boycotted by both the Israeli and U.S. governments, Carter was upbeat Monday when addressing a packed Jerusalem audience about the results of his private shuttle talks with Hamas and Syrian leaders.
“There’s no question that both the Arab world and Hamas would accept Israel’s right to live in peace within the 1967 borders,” Carter said. “We believe that the problem is not that I met with Hamas in Syria. The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with these people who must be involved.”
According to Carter, Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Meshaal, said his group would accept a peace deal signed between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel as long as it were put to a referendum. But such a plebiscite would require participation by millions of Palestinians abroad, including radicalized refugees who long have refused to give up their “right of return” to land now in Israel – a non-starter for the Jewish state.
Meshaal, moreover, made clear in a news conference after Carter’s address that Hamas would not recognize Israel even if a Palestinian state were founded in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had declined to meet Carter for fear of being seen as negotiating with Hamas, said that Jerusalem “sees no change in Hamas’ extremist positions.”
Even Abbas, despite the nod to his authority from the same Hamas Islamists who wrested control of Gaza from his Fatah movement last June, dismissed the idea that Carter’s trip had been effective.
“Carter gave them the right advice,” Abbas told reporters en route to the United States, where he will meet President Bush later this week. “He urged Hamas to accept a two-state solution and accept past Palestinian agreements with Israel, but unfortunately he failed to convince them and his visit did not end up with positive results.”
Carter likely would disagree – if only because his mission got a rise out of a Bush administration whose Middle East policies he has regularly lambasted.
“The United States is not going to deal with Hamas, and we certainly told President Carter that we did not think that meeting with Hamas was going to help the Palestinians,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday. “We wanted to make sure there would be no confusion and there would be no sense that Hamas was somehow a party to peace negotiations which Abu Mazen has undertaken with the Israeli prime minister.”
Abu Mazen is Abbas’ nom de guerre.
Carter may be able to claim some successes, however. While Hamas refused to budge on its demand for hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists to be freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier being held hostage in Gaza, Meshaal did agree to pass on a letter from the captive Israeli.
On the issue of a cease-fire, Carter proposed to Hamas that as a sign of goodwill, it unilaterally stop rocket launches from Gaza into Israel for a trial period.
“I told them, ‘Don’t wait for reciprocation; just do it unilaterally. This will bring a lot of credit to you around the world, doing a humane thing.’ They turned me down. I think they’re wrong,” he said.
But Hamas signaled Tuesday that contrary to its previous insistence on any cease-fire being applied reciprocally and comprehensively in both the West Bank and Gaza, it could settle for a Gaza truce at first.
That might suit Israel, which wants to deal with Hamas separately from Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority controls only the West Bank.