Should Jimmy Carter Have Talked with Hamas?

News Abroad

Mr. Kaufman is associate professor of History at Francis Marion University. He is the author of four books and co-authored with his father, Burton Kaufman, the revised edition of The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. He has just completed Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration, which is forthcoming from Northern Illinois University Press.

President Jimmy Carter is no stranger to controversy. Since the mid-1980s, he has been an outspoken critic of those aspects of U.S. foreign or domestic policy of which he does not approve. In recent years, this has included the decision of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, Dick Cheney’s record as vice-president, and the impact of Christian fundamentalism upon the United States. In the last week, he has aroused renewed debate over his decision to travel to Syria and meet with Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of Hamas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims that Carter was explicitly told not to meet with Mashaal on the grounds that such a meeting would confuse U.S. policy toward what Washington considers a terrorist organization.. Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman went so far as to label Carter “a bigot.”

Carter has rejected the criticism. According to him, isolating Hamas, which he notes was elected by a majority of Palestinians in 2006, violates the democratic principles for which the United States stands. Moreover, refusing to talk with Hamas will only make it harder to moderate its attitude toward Israel, thereby opening the door to further violence. Indeed, he states, his negotiations succeeded in convincing Hamas to accept any agreement worked out between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, to adopt a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and to permit international control of the Gaza-Egypt border.

Whether Rice indeed told Carter not to go to Syria must remain speculative; Carter has stated that he received no such demand. One must wonder, though, whether Carter would have agreed not to go even had he received such instructions. As has been noted by a number of scholars, including myself, Carter has long regarded himself as a trustee of the American people, if not of the world, who does what he believes is right no matter what the fallout. He himself confirmed this in an interview on April 29 with CNN American Morning anchor John Roberts. During a discussion of his new book on his mother, Lillian, he was asked what one lesson he learned from her. His response: do what you believe is right, even if you are criticized for it. Moreover, he feels that eventually others will come to see the correctness of his cause.

In one respect, Carter is following a long-standing American precedent which argues that a way to moderate the behavior of radical or revolutionary governments is through negotiation rather than isolation. U.S. policy toward communist China is a case in point. Following the communists’ victory in 1949, the United States cut relations with, and led efforts to impose an international embargo on, the government in Beijing. While he maintained the embargo so as not to anger right-wing members of the Republican Party, President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported Japan’s decision to resume trade with China. Not only would Tokyo have access to the Chinese market, thereby protecting U.S. textile manufacturers from cheap Japanese textile imports, but, believed the president, having contacts with Japan might temper the Chinese government’s attitude toward the West. And, of course, throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained diplomatic contact with the Soviet Union despite their diametrically-opposed ideologies.

In another respect, however, Carter has broken new ground. He has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to challenge presidential policy. He excoriated President Ronald Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s pro-apartheid government and opposed the use of force in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. In 1994, President Bill Clinton, whose relationship with Carter had never been close, reluctantly sent the former president to North Korea to convince the government in Pyongyang not to develop nuclear weapons. Carter did indeed reach such an agreement. But to the anger of the Clinton administration, he made the settlement public; the White House believed that in so doing, Carter had undermined the possibility of using sanctions or other measures to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions. Though he is a former president, the very fact that Carter was at one point the most powerful person in the United States not only is likely to receive a great deal of media attention, but gives the people or groups with whom he speaks a level of legitimacy that would not be accorded by a retired charge d’affaires, ambassador, or even a secretary.

One must wonder if anything will come of Carter’s trip. Israel has shown no willingness to meet with Hamas. Hamas rejects the idea of recognizing Israel. In short, any permanent agreement seems a long way off.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tim Matthewson - 5/3/2008

It is difficult to say where the majority of Palestinians stand on the subject of Israel. But several prominent commentator have come around to the conclusion that the majority of Palestinians now favor a two state solution to the problems of Israel-Palestinian relations. If this is true, and I believe that it is, the odd man out is the leadership of Hamas who remain adamant about the elimination of Israel. Historically, the problem in making a peace treaty has been the inability of the Palestinians to isolate the radicals among them; the leadership of Arafat was a complete failure in this regard, even though Bill Clinton tried his best and seem about the succeed, had it not been for Arafat. Isreal and the US now need to focus on the task of nuturing moderate Arab Muslim opinion with the objective of negotiating a treaty based on a two state solution. But if we refuse to even talk with Hamas and that type of opinion, peace will never be achieved. The US talked with Communists in Russia and China while they favored world revolution and the destruction of capitalism and democracy, so I fail to see why we should not talk with Hamas.

Stephen Kislock - 5/3/2008

Israel [AIPAC] will not let the US, have any Policy of moderation, in the Middle-East.

Israel, will not be happy, until it drives the Palestinians into the Sea!

The term Apartheid is to generous to apply to the Israeli goverment, in it's actions, against the Palestinians!

What happen to the International Outrage, against the Treatment or mass punishment inflicted on the West Bank and Gaza?

President Carter, is a Vioce in the Wilderness, But it's something, for Justice!

omar ibrahim baker - 5/2/2008

Is it NOT that the QUESTION in the title is a repeat of the very same question asked so often in the past with the Viet Cong, RED China , the PLO, Cuba, Nigaragua etc etc standing, in the question, where Hamas stands now ??
Is that NOT proof enough of the inanity of a policy , any policy, that refuses to meet with its adversaries?
Meeting one's adversaries does NOT have to the prelude to submitting to him as with China and the Viet Cong; respectively.
One would think, hope against hope, that the USA has out grown this infantile disposition of not talking to adversaries!
It seems NOT !
Is there an AIPAC veto on the subject??