Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jimmy Carter : a fool on a fool's errand

By Michael Young

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Say what you will about Jimmy Carter, he has a way of transforming moments of plodding gravitas into uproarious comedy. Remember that moment during the 1980 Democratic convention when Carter stood up, and in a phrase paying tribute to Hubert Humphrey, instead praised "Hubert Horatio Hornblower," confusing the late vice president with the character from the C.S. Forester novels?

As Carter prepares to meet with a senior Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus, the former American president again risks attempting to say one thing, only to blunder into another. Carter's declared goal is to affirm that no one can avoid talking to Hamas. As he put it last week, "I'm not a negotiator. I'm someone who might provide some communication. I'm going to try to make [Meshaal] agree to a peaceful resolution, both with Israel and with Hamas' Palestinian rivals."

The debate over whether the United States, Israel and others should talk to Hamas has become tiresome, largely because those supporting dialogue invariably limit their reasoning to a narrow syllogism: Hamas is a central actor in the Palestinian conflict; to resolve the conflict you need to talk to central actors; therefore talk to Hamas. To many engagers the problem is mainly one of communication. If only everyone could just sit around a table and talk, things would work out. Khaled Meshaal hasn't yet been shown the prospective gains from a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; he hasn't been talked to. But because he's a pragmatic man, a sincere dialogue would allow him to deploy some of that pragmatism to the benefit of reaching a peaceful regional equilibrium.

You can almost hear Khaled Meshaal gasping at the naivete of such sweeping positivism, as he prepares to score points off his solemn American visitor. Meshaal knows what talks with Hamas would really imply, and he knows the snag is hardly one of miscommunication.

For one thing, negotiating with Hamas would effectively undermine the authority and credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization - together, the paramount representatives of the Palestinian people. If the engagers' riposte is that Abbas is already discredited, that only confirms their intention to replace Abbas with Hamas as Israel's chief interlocutor. Still, senior members of the Fatah movement would disagree with the grim assessment of Abbas. They believe Hamas is increasingly squeezed in Gaza, its credibility on the wane as it has brought only hardship to the strip's inhabitants. That is why, they point out, the movement is so desperate to break out of the Israeli blockade. As for the West Bank, Hamas has lost ground there as well, they insist, despite claims that the movement could seize control of the area were it not for the presence of the Israeli Army.

Regardless of whether this is true, it makes no sense today to damage Abbas by opening a channel to Hamas, which has never endorsed the agreements reached with Israel during the Oslo years. In fact, to bring Hamas into negotiations would only grant legitimacy to the movement's rejection of those agreements, and of the entire Oslo process. This, in turn, would only further constrict Abbas' slim margin of maneuver.

A second consequence of talking to Hamas, Meshaal knows, is that it would insert Iran and Syria squarely into the Palestinian track. There are differences between Meshaal in Damascus and Mahmoud Zahhar and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, but it's hard to imagine that an open channel to the movement would not enhance Meshaal's standing, and that of his backers. Meshaal is more accessible and can call on substantial Iranian funding, even if the Muslim Brotherhood's financial networks benefit all factions. Whoever ends up speaking on Hamas' behalf, Tehran and Damascus could only gain from a dialogue with the movement. Yasser Arafat's singular achievement for three decades was to safeguard the "independence of the Palestinian decision," particularly from Syria. Talking to Meshaal could well mean reversing that accomplishment.

There is also a valid case to be made that Hamas is not interested in a peace treaty with Israel, because its ultimate ambition is to liberate the whole of Palestine. Certainly, that's what the movement demonstrates day in and day out. Meshaal has declared that Hamas would accept a deal on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but has added a key caveat that this must also include a right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to their places of origin. For Israel this is a non-starter on demographic grounds, and Meshaal knows it. However, it does allow supporters of dialogue with Hamas to conveniently slot the movement into the Oslo consensus, even if the reality is different.

Whatever Hamas' true intentions, the contention that states should not talk to the movement on principle is difficult to sustain, if only because politics abhors a vacuum and the impulse to do something different can become overwhelming. That's why the onus should be placed on defenders of engagement to substantiate their proposals. Talking should not be an end in itself. First the engagers should clarify what Hamas will agree to talk about. The movement says it is willing to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel, a notion once championed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well. If both parties agree, fine. But the outcome won't be peace. Israel will use the interregnum to consolidate its hold on strategic parts of the West Bank, while Hamas will use it to marginalize its Palestinians foes, rearm, and prepare for a showdown with Israel.

On the other hand, if Hamas is willing to discuss peace, then the movement has to first demonstrate this before anyone seriously considers overhauling the Palestinian-Israeli track. That shouldn't be difficult, even if nothing shows that Hamas is contemplating peace with Israel, while everything about the movement's behavior and rhetoric says the contrary.

That's why Jimmy Carter is on a fool's errand, complicating an already complicated situation. It's often said that Carter has been a better ex-president than president. That's no compliment, so ghastly was his tenancy of the White House - the Camp David accords notwithstanding. Peace may be a long way away between Palestinians and Israelis, but Carter won't speed things up any by turning into Meshaal's patsy.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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