Jimmy Carter s visit to the region and his meetings with several parties including Hamas officials coincided with serious Egyptian efforts to try to forge a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. The former US president s meetings with the Syrian leadership and Hamas were controversial in the United States, however, and he was brutally criticized in Israel. Only in Palestine were his efforts welcomed by the full political spectrum.
Among other things, Carter s meetings brought attention to the fact that the official American strategy of excluding and boycotting Hamas while supporting its domestic rival Fateh has been a failure. On a practical level, meanwhile, the most interesting outcome of Carter s meetings with Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal were the direct and indirect messages from Hamas to the international community, according to which Hamas is willing to behave with political maturity, contrary to the impressions created by Israel and Israel s supporters.
Mishaal promised Carter Hamas would support and accept any political agreement Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert if it was put successfully to a popular referendum. That position is compatible with the position of Abbas, who has consistently responded to criticism that he will not be able to deliver his people to such an agreement by saying that Palestinians will get to vote on it and their verdict should be binding on everyone.
With Mishaal s words, Hamas has shown willingness to abide by the democratic rules, particularly by being willing to live with an agreement it might not like because it enjoys the support of the majority of the public.
Carter s meetings with Hamas and their outcome have shown up the contradictory nature of the American and Israeli position to shun Hamas and discourage all others to do the same. The argument used is that dealings with Hamas strengthen the movement and grant it legitimacy at the expense of the Fateh leadership.
But Israeli behavior in the West Bank and Washington s resoundingly silent response have already done exactly that. By preventing negotiations from even touching the substantive aspects of the conflict and continuing the practices that consolidate the occupation, including expanding settlements and fragmenting the Palestinian territories, Israel is causing a systematic decline in the public standing and credibility of Abbas and his camp.
The latest poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center bears out this continuing decline in support for the peace camp and the peace process, and a corresponding increase in the support for radical views and violent resistance. In parallel to Carter s efforts, meanwhile, Cairo has been trying to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that includes the Gaza crossings and prisoners as well as an end to violence in and around Gaza.
To this end, Hamas made a concession that was criticized by all other factions, especially its closest ally Islamic Jihad. That concession was also rooted in Hamas officials meetings with Carter and forms yet another indication that Hamas is willing to give and take if dealt with seriously. The concession was a willingness to allow the ceasefire to begin in Gaza alone. The previous insistence by Hamas to include the West Bank was thus dropped.
Given the lessons from the different approaches to dealing with the complicated situation since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, it is clear that the most successful is that combining the promise of a possible end to occupation through political and peaceful negotiations with inclusive dialogue, primarily among the Palestinian factions. The inclusive approach encourages the pragmatic elements in Hamas and thus promises to be the most fruitful if it is accompanied by a serious process toward ending the occupation.
Ghassan Khatibis coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. This commentary is published in collaboration with bitterlemons.org