Saturday, April 26, 2008

Getting Carter

Making peace often involves talking to unsavoury people, so Jimmy Carter should be praised for engaging with Hamas

Ian Williams
Guardian, Comment is Free
April 25, 2008 6:00 PM | Pr
intable version
It is odd that while Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon benefited from post-presidential canonisation, even the Democratic contenders keep a discrete leper's leap away from Jimmy Carter.

Carter's belief that even the most evil dictators will see the light is a testament to his Christian faith in redemption. It can be exasperating if you do not share his principles, but it is certainly preferable to the predestinarianism and damnation that informs other, less Christian evangelicals. Indeed, many probably find his Southern accent and piety a trifle over-unctuous. However, it is certainly not enough to explain his ostracism, which is almost entirely caused by his views on the Middle East.

Condoleezza Rice, representing the administration that brought the world the Iraq debacle and has earned the lowest-ever standing at home and abroad (in particular in the Middle East), saw fit to lecture him for talking to Hamas despite state department instructions. Carter denied getting any such warnings, but who are you going to believe: the most mendacious administration in history or the ex-president who wears his principles on his sleeve?

In any sane polity, there would be profound respect for the views of a president who engineered the only durable Arab-Israeli peace deal at Camp David, one that has now lasted over 30 years. Of course, meeting Hamas is considered very bad. Elected they may have been, but democracy has its limits in this brave new world where the label "terrorist" has more pungency and even less discrimination than Joe McCarthy's "communist". Indeed, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, called Carter a "bigot" yesterday. Can you imagine the reaction if a US envoy to Israel - or a presidential candidate - had used that term about several Israeli ex-prime ministers who truly deserve it?

On the other hand, perhaps we should remember that Carter's triumph at Camp David involved him dealing with Menachem Begin, the former leader of a group that had negotiated with Hitler's emissaries; assassinated Lord Moyne, the chief allied emissary in the region; massacred Arab civilians at Deir Yasseen; and blown up Jews, Brits and Arabs with equal-opportunity ruthlessness at the King David Hotel. Peace often involves talking to unsavoury people.

The other accusation against Carter was that he used the term "apartheid" in passing when talking about the settlements. No matter that Israeli commentators have also used the term, nor that those who should know - South Africans like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu - have also done so, leaving their global halos undimmed. Carter did not even mention the extensive Israeli collaboration with the apartheid regime, on nuclear weapons, fighter planes and less bellicose forms of sanctions evasion or indeed the occupation's quantitative leap beyond the old South African regime - racially segregated roads.

Carter brought back indications that the Hamas leadership were prepared to buy into the only peace plan that has the support of considerable numbers of Israelis and of Arabs, a two-state solution based on the 1967 boundaries. Immediately, the usual suspects rushed to rubbish this. Hamas must not only recognise the reality of Israel's existence, but its "right" to exist. It is like asking American Indian tribes to accept the morality of manifest destiny before they could run their own reservations.

Interestingly, no one has asked Israeli government ministers to accept unequivocally the Palestinian state that has been promised for so long by the rest of the world. However, reciprocation apart, no one should doubt that those who condemn Carter, dismiss the Hamas offer and refuse to talk to them do not want peace.

There can be no peace unless the substantial proportion of Palestinians represented by Hamas sign on for it. There are significant elements in the Israeli government, like those who assassinate Hamas leaders every time a ceasefire is in the offing, who do not want any peace that restricts their activities in the West Bank.

Even as Rice bans talks to Hamas, the US continues to send cheques to a government that is building settlements in defiance of international law, its obligations under the so-called road map and its solemn promises to George Bush.

Carter deserves vociferous support for his well-meaning and well-informed efforts, not vilification and demonising. It was back-channel efforts like his that were responsible for any progress in the original Camp David and in Oslo. We should not be surprised that the Bush administration does not want to listen to Carter, but we should be very, very disappointed.

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