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Carter's Crusade for Peace Sows Seeds of Hope in Middle East

Chris Gelken, Tehran, Iran, April 24, 2008

Upon his arrival at Queen Alia international airport in Amman, Jordan, on April 20, former President Jimmy Carter (right) is greeted by Jordan's foreign ministry secretary general, Khaldun Talhoni. (Photo: Jamal Nasrallah / AFP-Getty Images)

Former President Jimmy Carter is heading home after a hugely controversial nine-day tour of the Middle East that some have dubbed the Carter Peace Crusade.

However noble Carter's intentions may have been, from day one he has been facing increasing criticism from Washington and Israel, both of which view his intervention as unwelcome, untimely, and possibly even damaging.

"He is just wading into a situation that is contentious enough and something like this just complicates matters," Anthony T. Salvia, a former special advisor to the undersecretary of state in the Reagan administration told PressTV's "Middle East Today."

Salvia said that while Carter's interference was unwelcome, it had to be admitted that the United States' Middle East policy was at least in part responsible for the current stalemate in the overall peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

"To be fair to Carter it is also the case that the U.S. policy, the pro-democracy efforts in the Middle East are what resulted in Hamas coming to power in the first place," he said. "So when asked the question whether it makes sense to insist on democracy in countries where some of the strongest feeling have to do with how they view the U.S. and how they view Israel, and how they view the entire situation, the treatment of Palestinians and so on, I think the current U.S. policy has to be looked at in terms of promoting democracy."

Pilloried in the American media since his first meeting with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, the former president has been the target of what can only be described as a concerted campaign of hate in the United States and Israel.

But defying American and Israeli warnings, Carter held a second round of talks with Mashaal last Saturday in Damascus.

Carter has been vilified for meeting with what much of the mainstream media has described as terrorists. There have been calls for the funding of his Carter Center for Peace to be withdrawn and even suggestions that his passport be taken away. And as a colleague of mine joked, it probably won't be too long before we hear a clamor on Capitol Hill for him to be burned at the stake as a heretic.

Whatever one's position on the Israeli-Palestinian question, few would dispute the fact that Carter was treated with humiliating disrespect by Tel Aviv, not that the energetic Carter seemed to mind or even really to notice.

His movements within Israel were restricted, he was denied entry into the Gaza Strip by the Israelis, and he was shunned by government leaders in Tel Aviv.

Ironically, many analysts say Carter may have been one of the best friends Israel has ever had, and probably still is. It was Carter who brokered the 1979 Camp David peace deal between Israel and Egypt, the first peace deal signed by Israel with one of its Arab neighbors.

But while Carter may be a friend to Israel, he has been an equally firm friend of the Palestinians and their struggle for rights and statehood. It is this friendship, and his description of Israel as an apartheid state, that earned Carter the enmity of many Israelis.

Carter has broken just about every known taboo for an American politician regarding the Middle East. He has openly criticized the Israeli government, he has laid a wreath at the tomb of former Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, and, horror of horrors, he has insisted that Hamas must be included in any negotiated settlement.

Carter has repeated that he was not in the Middle East as an official negotiator. He is not representing the United States government, and he is in no position to make deals. But what he has done, perhaps unintentionally, is highlight the fundamental rifts that are preventing any progress in the Middle East peace process. Rifts based on shared mistrust, hatred, and an almost pathological reluctance to try anything new to break the decades old deadlock.

This reluctance has suggested to many observers that at least some of the parties, or more accurately some individuals in those parties, are not really interested in finding a settlement. They say such a settlement will involve the frequently referred to "tough choices" they are so unwilling to make. Some of these "final settlement" choices could spell political suicide for an Israeli politician.

But in spectacular fashion, Carter highlighted the fact that the toughest choice for most of them is to actually begin talking.

Prof. Haidar Eid of the Al Aqsa University in Gaza told "Middle East Today" that he could understand the Israeli unease over Carter's talks with Hamas.

"On the one hand, by meeting with the Hamas leader in Damascus, Jimmy Carter has given legitimacy to Hamas as part of the Palestinian national liberation movement. On the other hand, after the meeting, Hamas might come out as an organization that actually calls for peace with Israel rather than for the destruction of the Jewish State, as Israel likes to portray Hamas."

Eid said the prevailing feeling in Palestine is that the meetings were a step forward, but not a huge breakthrough.

The professor's assessment proved pretty much on the button after confusion erupted over what concessions Hamas was really ready to make in return for peace.

It was understood that Hamas would "recognize" Israel in return for a peace agreement that satisfied many of their long-standing demands.

This was later downplayed to a watery "recognize Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders" if the majority of Palestinians agreed with it. Hamas would also honor a peace agreement negotiated by Fatah leader President Mahmoud Abbas, again if it was the will of the Palestinians.

Of course, the thorny questions over the status of Jerusalem/Al Quds—the right of return of refugees, water resources, return of prisoners, the dismantlement of Jewish settlements, the tearing down of Carter's "apartheid" walls and roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank—are all still issues that have to be negotiated.

But success in those negotiations will see Hamas accept the existence of a state of Israel—not necessarily "recognize" the state of Israel—if the majority of Palestinian people agree to the terms of the peace deal.

It's a little insignificant to some critics but infinitely more positive than anything else that was on the table before Carter's visit.

It could be said that by getting Hamas to utter the words, to formulate a statement that would have been dismissed as impossible just a week ago, Carter may have achieved that elusive breakthrough Eid was referring to.

Who knows, one day people might describe his visit as "the nine days that changed the Middle East."

Certainly, Carter has generated more debate, achieved more focus, and triggered more movement on the issue in his nine days than the United States government has managed in the five months since the Annapolis Conference.

Condoleezza Rice, one of the architects of Annapolis, said Carter's self-imposed peace crusade could confuse the message that Washington is unwilling to deal with Hamas. It beggars the question, what has this policy achieved?

In fact, since Annapolis, Carter said there has been retrogression in the occupied territories—more roadblocks and the devastating siege on Gaza tightened to strangle point.

When a policy has so obviously failed, and failed badly for so long, it is only common sense to try something new. Don't you think?

Watch the complete "Middle East Today" debate on Carter's crusade (April 20, 2008).

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