Poor Jimmy Carter. All he wanted to do was talk peace. But all he got was the shaft, from the Bush administration, the secretary of state, the Israeli government, the mainstream media, and the presidential candidates. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe denounced his meeting with Hamas representatives from Gaza as not “useful.” Condi Rice intoned that “Hamas is a terrorist organization,” which she then described as an “impediment to peace” and the Israeli government did her one better by refusing to speak to Carter at all, though he was permitted five minutes with President Shimon Peres as a courtesy.
The U.S. media generally did not report that Carter was denied any Israeli security protection while in Israel and on the West Bank and that he was refused permission to visit Gaza. It would be churlish to suggest that some Israeli leaders might have wanted something to happen to Carter while unprotected by the Israeli secret service, but the denial of security speaks for itself. It also demonstrates that billions each year in assistance from Washington to Israel doesn’t buy much if one is an ex-U.S. president. It doesn’t buy much even if one is a current president.
Most discouraging were the comments from Barack Obama, who has been widely seen as a possible agent for change in U.S. foreign policy. Speaking to a group of American Jewish leaders gathered in a Philadelphia synagogue, he criticized Carter, saying, “Hamas is not a state, Hamas is a terrorist organization. They obviously have developed great influence within the Palestinian territories, but they do not control the apparatus of power.” As Obama has frequently evinced a willingness to enter into discussions with nearly everyone and Hamas is actually a political party representing most of the Palestinian people and constituting a majority in the national parliament, the parsing is curious. If holding the position of prime minister after a democratic election is not controlling “the apparatus of power,” it is not clear what the litmus test might be. Obama also went on to describe his friendship for Israel with obligatory effusiveness, saying that “he would make sure that it [Israel] can defend itself from any attack,” though again the word choice was interesting, as he did not pledge the U.S. to go to war on behalf of Israel, as John McCain and Hillary Clinton have done.
Carter was also lacerated by the U.S. media, which did not report the visit in detail except to criticize it. The Washington Post‘s neocon-dominated editorial page was the most strident, denouncing Carter for embracing Hamas’ terrorists. According to the Post, Hamas engages in “deliberate targeting of civilians,” such as the Israeli town of Sderot, which “suffers daily rocket attacks.” The Post seems unaware of Israeli targeting of civilians when it can’t find an actual “militant” to kill. The relentless barrage on Sderot using crude, homemade rockets reportedly killed only one resident in the past year, a worker from Ecuador. Hundreds of Palestinians, mostly civilians and including many children, have been killed in Israeli reprisals during that same time period. It is particularly ironic that the Israelis killed 20 Palestinians on April 16, all civilians and including five children, the day on which Obama made his speech and the White House was criticizing Carter’s efforts. Israeli sources, which understate Palestinian deaths, report that 4,604 Palestinians have been killed since 2000 versus 1,033 Israelis. Nearly one thousand of the dead Palestinians were children.
Investor’s Business Daily outdid the Post, opining that “Our worst ex-president honors the memory of Yasser Arafat while hugging Hamas-cidal terrorists. Instead of embracing terrorists, Jimmy Carter should be laying wreaths at the tombs of their victims.” Benjamin Shapiro, writing for Townhall.com, put it slightly differently: “Jimmy Carter is an evil man. It is painful to label a past president of the United States as a force for darkness. But it is dangerous to let a man like Jimmy Carter stalk around the globe cloaked in the garb of American royalty, planting the seeds of Western Civilization’s destruction.” Rep. Joe Knollenberg of Michigan is so angry about Carter that he is proposing legislation blocking any federal funding for the Carter Center, saying that “America must speak with one voice against our terrorist enemies,” while Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina has called on Condi Rice to revoke Carter’s passport. The new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, complains that Carter holds “warped” views on the Middle East. Berman, who is a strong and vocal supporter of Israel at all times and under all circumstances, apparently believes that his own views are just fine.
Ironically, Carter is the one U.S. president who has actually done considerable good for Israel, not just for the hard-line right-wing politicians lately much beloved in Washington, having brokered the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. He has been an honest if sometimes overly sanctimonious spokesman, recognizing that Israel is creating an apartheid-like system on the West Bank, something that the Israeli media is free to say but which is taboo in the United States. On his trip to the Middle East, Carter defined his intentions very clearly, to act as a “communicator” who would relay what the leaders of Syria and Hamas have to say to the leaders of the United States. He has also said it would be counterproductive to exclude Hamas from discussions of the future of the region. A recent opinion poll indicates that 64 percent of Israelis, who are most directly affected by the issue, want talks with Hamas. Both Carter and the majority of Israelis are correct in their assessment that stability in the Palestinian territories is not achievable without dealing with Hamas.
It is difficult to detect much that is extreme in the Carter mission. If one accepts that Hamas is a reality in the Middle East, having been chosen by a large majority of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank, its legitimacy should not be questioned, even if its tactics and some of its political positions should be challenged. It is clear that no settlement for the Israel-Palestine problem can be envisioned without Hamas’ participation, which leads one to assume that Israel, which continues to stonewall while it expands its settlements, has no interest in any solution until it has sealed off all of Jerusalem and taken everything else it wants on the West Bank. This position is being supported de facto by the United States, which has done absolutely nothing to stop the Israelis in spite of the assurances dutifully delivered in Annapolis only four months ago. Jimmy Carter would like to reverse a failed process that he knows is not good for the United States, Israel, or the Palestinians. He surely expected that he would receive no credit for his efforts and would instead be on the receiving end of considerable criticism, frequently bordering on the scurrilous. It is a tribute to his integrity and dedication to what is right that he has persevered in spite of everything that Israel’s numerous friends have thrown at him.