Jimmy Carter has sometimes been called the greatest US ex-president. I’m not sure about that—I would probably name John Quincy Adams for that distinction, and William Howard Taft might also be a contender. Still, there is no doubt that Carter’s post-presidency has outshined his lackluster record in the White House. Here is Carter, together with former Ireland President Mary Robinson, proposing a sensible way forward for Gaza. Probably their most controversial proposal regards Hamas:
…[T]he United States and EU should recognize that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force. Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise. Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor — one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people — can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons.
I have no patience with self-righteous denunciations of Hamas as a terrorist organization with whom no business must be conducted. Israel has a long record of its own in the practice of terror. Israelis made liberal use of terror during their independence struggle through 1948. Two Israeli prime ministers—Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir—had been leaders respectively of two notorious Jewish terrorist organizations—the Irgun and the Stern gang. A third prime minister—Ariel Sharon—had personally led a “counter-terror” unit of the Israeli army that conducted cold-blooded reprisal massacres of Arab civilians in the early 1950s. And, as I’ve pointed out in various posts, the collective punishment of the people of Gaza during the last two major Israeli military assaults, as well as the routine violence directed at Palestinians by both the Israeli army and by settlers during “peaceful” periods, amount to terror under any fair-minded definition of the term. I could go on. And yet I haven’t heard Palestinians argue that the state of Israel is a terrorist organization with whom no business can be conducted.
But what possible use can it be anyway to negotiate with Hamas—aren’t they implacably dedicated to the destruction of Israel? It’s useful to remember that that is exactly what Israelis used to insist was true of the Palestine Liberation Organization practically up to the eve of the talks that led to the Oslo accord of 1993. Hamas certainly is a scary organization in many ways, but, like the PLO of the 1980s, it is not uniformly demonic. Peace activist Medea Benjamin describes a meeting she and some colleagues had with Hamas officials in 2009:
I expected the meeting to be tense, with rancor expressed toward us as Americans…and as Jews. We were not only warmly welcomed by the group of about a dozen men, but told repeatedly: “We have no problems with the Jewish religion; in fact, we find it very close to Islam. Our problem is with Israeli policies, not Jews.”
I realized that Hamas, like any political organization, is made up of a variety of individuals with different political perspectives. Some are hard-line Islamists, antagonistic toward the West and bent on the destruction of Israel. Others, like the ones we met with, had earned university degrees in Western universities, appreciated many aspects of American and European culture, and believed they could negotiate with the Israelis.
I have no doubt that if the leaders of Hamas could wave a magic wand that ended Israeli sovereignty in all of Palestine, they would do so. But there is no magic wand and Hamas understands that Israel is not going away. Since 2004, Hamas has on several occasions indicated that it would be willing to abide by a long-term truce with Israel conditioned on an end to the occupation. They have also said that they would respect a referendum decision in which the Palestinian people ratified a two-state solution to their conflict with Israel. It is reasonable to regard these assertions with skepticism, but they are worth exploring. No Israeli government has sought to do so because the political alignment that has dominated Israel for the past 13 years is adamantly opposed to ever allowing a sovereign Palestinian state to arise alongside of Israel.