Washington Babylon — April 16, 2008, 12:43 pm

Jimmy Carter, Hamas, and the Media

Jimmy Carter is, predictably, being savaged for meeting with officials from Hamas during his current visit to the Middle East. “It’s bad enough that Carter…will be putting a stamp of legitimacy on a gang of cutthroats who’ve never hesitated to include Americans in their growing body count,” said the New York Post in its typically measured style. “The saddest thing about this get-together is that it comes as no real surprise. Indeed, it’s entirely in keeping with Carter’s recent embrace of Palestinian extremism–to the point where, in his latest published anti-Israel screed, he all but gave his blessing to attacks on Israel.”

Carter’s general position on the need for the U.S. to engage Hamas receives little support elsewhere in the media, including the liberal blogosphere. “Since Syria and Hamas will have to be involved in a final peace agreement,” he said yesterday, “they will have to be involved in discussions that lead to final peace.”

“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an American president to say that he wouldn’t have any diplomatic talks with Hamas as long as that’s Israel’s position as well–after all, what would they talk about?” Matthew Yglesias recently wrote. “Hamas can’t make concessions to the United States nor is there much of anything the United States would concede to Hamas.”

I enjoy Yglesias’s work and have just picked up his new book on foreign policy, Heads in the Sand (Wiley), but I don’t understand that argument. Why would the United States government allow Israel to determine to whom it talks? The only way to reach a political settlement in the Middle East is for an American president to pressure Israel to make concessions. It’s hard to exert much pressure if our government allows Israel to determine who speaks for the Palestinians.

Yglesias does soften his point by saying that the “more meaningful question facing an American administration would be what kind of counsel/pressure/whatever they give to the government of Israel regarding holding talks with Hamas,” and that “the reasons it’s smart for the U.S. to…negotiate in a meaningful way with countries like Syria and Iran are roughly the same as the reasons why it would be smart for Israel to negotiate with Hamas without preconditions.” But I still can’ see why the United States wouldn’t talk to Hamas until Israel agreed to do so first. We could be waiting a long time.

Like it or not, Hamas’s standing among Palestinians means that there is absolutely no way to reach a deal without accommodating the group and its supporters. We can talk to Hamas or spend the next twenty years in the woods. Indeed, the idea of dialogue with Hamas has recently been gaining support in the foreign policy establishment, and has been endorsed by figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Lee Hamilton and Colin Powell (“[A]s distasteful as I find some of their positions . . . Hamas has to be engaged,” the latter has said.)

Here’s another good reason to talk to Hamas, if I can cite my old story for the magazine, Parties of God:

For years the IRA was considered to be Europe’s most dangerous terrorist organization. In the extremity of its rhetoric, it painted itself as incapable of reason or compromise. “This war is to the end,” it stated in 1984. “There will be no interval. . . . When we put away our guns, Britain will be out of Ireland.” But after twenty-five years of bloody attacks on civilians and soldiers aimed at ending British control of Northern Ireland, the IRA called a cease-fire in 1994 and began negotiations with the British government. The Clinton Administration strongly backed those talks and engaged with the IRA; the following year, the movement’s political wing, Sinn Féin, was allowed to open a Washington office, and Gerry Adams, its leader, attended a St. Patrick’s Day party at the White House.

Negotiations with the IRA took years and were not always smooth. For many years the group refused to dismantle its paramilitary wing, leading at times to the suspension of the cease-fire and to renewed bombings and violence. It was only last October, fifteen months after the IRA declared an end to its armed campaign and pledged to seek to achieve its goals “through exclusively peaceful means,” that a government commission declared that the group had undergone a “transformation” and fully renounced terrorism. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin became a leftist, grassroots political party that in 2002, during Ireland’s last parliamentary elections, won 6.5 percent of the vote, and it also holds 24 of the 108 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

No perfect political parallel can be drawn between Islamic groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and the IRA, but Augustus Norton, the adviser to the Iraq Study Group, believes there are enough similarities to merit study. “It’s imagined that Islamic groups are esoteric and exotic, and don’t conform to the behavior of other groups in other settings,” he said. “But that assumption skews the debate and should be turned on its head. Unlike the millenarian aims of Osama bin Laden, [political Islamists] have goals that are in many ways pragmatic and even prosaic, and they are amenable to reasonable solutions and compromise.”

It’s too bad that people continue to portray the problems in the Middle East as a battle between homicidal Arabs and besieged Israelis. Here’s one example: Jeffrey Goldberg has a story in The Atlantic’s May issue that begins: “In early August of 2006, four weeks after the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which has as its goal the physical elimination of Israel (and the ancillary ambition of murdering, whenever practicable, Jews elsewhere in the world), killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two more in a cross-border raid, Israel found itself in an exceedingly disagreeable position.”

It’s hard to get past that first sentence.

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