Making Peace, the Carter Way

Former US president Jimmy Carter did, what the sane majority all over the world, including in Israel, believe needs done: he travelled to Cairo from Jerusalem, because the government there won’t let him cross into the territory, for a nice little chat with Hamas leaders who rule the streets in Gaza on Thursday and then on Friday broke the taboo of all taboos with a tete-e-tete with the exiled chief of the Islamic Movement, Khaled Meshal, in Damascus. He met Meshal a second time on Saturday, besides holding talks with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, another US bete noire, before leaving for talks with the Saudi king in Riyadh.

Carter had little to silence his vociferous critics as he left the Syrian capital Hamas gave him no commitment on the two requests (as goodwill gesture) made by him: halt rocket attacks on Israel and agree to meet Israeli officials to negotiate the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captured by the group. But then no one, least of all the former president who has traversed the treacherously intractable path to peace in the Middle East much before anyone else ñ after all he brokered the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace pact and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 – expected a breakthrough in this first meeting with the group, isolated practically by the whole world despite winning popular mandate in free and fair elections.

Carter is the first global leader to directly engage the Hamas leadership. And in doing so he underscored the pragmatic principle that no peace, indeed no progress on that path, is possible without involving Hamas – a reality the US and Israeli leaders admit in private but refuse to acknowledge in public even while dealing with it through the backdoor. Carter hoped his ‘private peace mission’ would break the ice with Hamas, listed officially by Israel, the US and Europe as a terrorist organisation, and would encourage Israeli leaders to follow his example and widen the debate on the peace process, which is stagnating despite efforts by President George W Bush to revive it. At least one Israeli Minister Eli Yishai is “quite willing” to meet Hamas leaders, even if for the limited purpose of seeking the release of Shalit.

And if the Hamas leaders, presently meeting in Syria, come up with a creative response, Carter’s efforts at coming to grips more forcefully with the realities of making peace will have made its contribution.

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