It is unclear what Jimmy Carter thought his recent meetings in the Middle East with Hamas leaders would actually accomplish. Given his political experience, he could not have believed that his trip to Damascus was likely to succeed in jumpstarting a process that would quickly include Hamas in actual peace negotiations.
More probably, he decided that he was in a unique position to focus western attention on the possibilities of engaging Hamas, and concluded that provocation was his most effective tool, just as he had when he entitled his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. The furore resulting from both actions was similar. Now, he has helped provide a clearer perspective of Hamas s current red lines, which future attempts at engagement will necessarily build on.
It is notable that few of Carter s critics seem to be able to put forward a realistic alternative to dealing with Hamas. None seems to believe that Hamas will disappear, or that military action will destroy or tame it. In fact, some readily admit that sooner or later Israel will have to deal with Hamas – that there is no choice. So why do some people attack Carter so ferociously?
The ostensible reason is that he broke ranks with the existing international consensus that defined Hamas as a terrorist organization; that his trip provided Hamas with de facto international legitimacy. Carter s laying a wreath on Yasser Arafat s grave and his public, physical embrace of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, provided grist for claims that he is anti-Israel and truly supports Hamas. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has also alleged that money Carter s center receives from Arab sources is motivating his anti-Israel initiatives. However, a surprising number of his detractors seem only able to recycle insults based on pure dislike of the man.
What is more important is that a number of significant Israelis – including former heads of the security services – have been urging the government to accept the reality of Hamas and find a way to engage it. In a recent poll, 64 percent of the Israeli public indicated a willingness to engage Hamas. Only in the United States does opinion seem almost uniformly negative.
So where are we with regard to Middle East peace progress?
It now seems to be a fact that Hamas will not disappear, no matter what Israel, the United States or the international community does. Hamas s popularity is due to several factors, including Palestinian disgust with Fatah s corruption, the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East, the perception (shared by most observers) that the post-Annapolis process will not succeed, and a general Palestinian conviction (whether right or wrong) that Israel will never peacefully agree to a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.
In addition, Hamas s success in its confrontations, political and military, with Fatah and the growing international impatience with the Israeli blockade of Gaza have helped Hamas establish a role from which it cannot be easily dislodged.
Hamas has given tentative indications of wavering from its traditional insistence that formal recognition or acceptance of Israel s legitimacy is theologically forbidden. It seems to be genuinely trying to develop theological and political mechanisms to enable it to deal with the powerful and inescapable reality that is today s Jewish state. This constitutes progress in the current context.
The inescapable fact is that Hamas has already established its legitimacy in the way every new political force does: by amassing political and military power that makes it impossible to ignore. It is no longer an option to deny this; the question for Israel, the United States and the West is in what manner to come to terms with it. This is not amoral Machiavellianism; it is recognition of reality.
There are times that even the powerful must bite the bullet and this is one of them. While Carter s trip continues to provoke political posturing, realities are being recognized. On April 30, Egypt announced that Hamas and 11 smaller Palestinian factions had agreed to honor a six-month truce with Israel. It now covers only Gaza, but may expand to the West Bank. Egypt s powerful Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, is currently trying to obtain Israel s acquiescence.
If this ceasefire takes hold, then other possibilities are likely to open, even if a formal peace agreement cannot now be reached. There are significant precedents for co-existing with sworn enemies. In 1948, Israel s four neighbors vowed to destroy it, but today two have signed peace treaties and a third insists it is ready for one. Similarly, the USSR and the United States (and their allies) faced off in the Cold War for decades and, to the surprise of many, avoided a general war.
When the killing stops, possibilities open.
Paul Scham is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and co-editor of the book Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. Disclaimer: Assertions and opinions in this writing do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.