In the aftermath of Jimmy Carter’s meetings with high-ranking Hamas officials last week, the Arab press has spoken: the former U.S. president’s mission failed miserably.
The Kuwaiti daily al-Watan observes that Carter’s prodding produced no changes in Hamas’ position on rocket attacks or Gilad Shalit, who has been held as a prisoner for nearly two years. Meanwhile, the Hariri-owned Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal doubted that Carter could translate his pro-Palestinian intentions into meaningful results, recalling that the Camp David Accords hadn’t fulfilled Carter’s ambitions for Palestinian statehood thirty years ago. “He’s fit to run the Red Cross, but not the United States,” al-Mustaqbal concluded, calling Carter “naïve.” Even those supporting Carter’s engagement with Hamas in principle remained unconvinced. For example, though lauding Carter’s “political idealism,” an opinion piece published in the pan-Arab Elaf argued “political idealism alone is insufficient in political work.”
In short, while many believe that Hamas cannot be ignored in any forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the consensus within the Arab press appears to be that Carter is an incapable activist rather than a serious statesman.
Yet, for all his moral stupidity, it is hard to take pleasure in Carter’s failure. After all, Carter’s very public meet-and-greet with Hamas seems like a harbinger of things to come. Indeed, in the two years since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, support for engaging Hamas has become an increasingly mainstream position, endorsed by former policymakers from both Democratic and Republican administrations; The New York Times editorial board; and virtually every policy adviser for the leading Democratic presidential candidate. Moreover, sixty-four percent of Israelis support negotiating with Hamas, while Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai–acting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s approval–asked Carter to deliver his request for a meeting to Damascus-based Hamas leader Khalid Meshal. As the Annapolis “process”–which explicitly excluded radicals–appears increasingly hopeless, calls for dealing with Hamas will likely escalate further.
Of course, none of this changes the dangers associated with engaging Hamas, most especially the fact that doing so would validate Hamas’ stubborn refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism as an effective strategy–anathema to the moderation that U.S. policy aims to promote. Policymakers must therefore focus on how Hamas can be prevented from declaring victory the next time a prominent American political figure dials Damascus. Much is at stake and, even while ventures such as Carter’s are still widely dismissed as tomfoolery, the tables may be turning.