Jimmy Carter’s meetings with Hamas officials this week do not technically violate U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists, but they do counter the principle and may well undermine the former president’s professed desire to support Middle East peace efforts.
It is longstanding U.S policy not to negotiate with terrorists. There are nuances to the policy; it does not preclude contacts and talks. But the bottom line has been that terrorists should not be rewarded for their criminal actions, such as taking hostages.
Carter, of course, is no longer in a position to negotiate officially for the U.S. government. Nor he is carrying water for the Bush administration. Indeed, the State Department advised him publicly against meeting with Hamas officials.
But in the end he reportedly met Tuesday with a Hamas leader, Nasser Shaer, in Ramallah, and soon is expected to meet in Damascus with Hamas’ leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal.
In an interview Sunday with ABC News, Carter insisted that his goal was to "support fully the peace efforts in the Middle East." The problem is that his well-publicized meetings essentially undermine chances for peace by rewarding terrorists prior to any negotiations or meaningful changes in behavior.
The controversy over meeting Meshaal reminds me of my time at the State Department counterterrorism office in the 1980s during the Lebanon hostage crisis. Carter’s actions are reminiscent of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s high-profile efforts to "help" obtain the release of American hostages in Lebanon.
Whenever the Hezbollah terrorists and their Iranian backers decided to release a hostage as part of the missile deal, Jackson was given media attention for being chosen to receive them. The terrorists would then seize some other poor American to replenish their terrorist "hostage bank."
Carter’s actions are also reminiscent of the European Union’s actions in pumping hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, into Yasser Arafat’s PLO "to help the poor Palestinians" without insisting on strict accountability to minimize the PLO and Fatah’s notorious corruption.
The widespread corruption in Fatah, fed in part by the E.U. money, was a major reason that Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January ‘005. Thus, well meaning but foolishly indulgent attitudes helped lead to the situation that Gaza is in today.
Hamas unquestionably is a terrorist organization — it conducts premeditated, politically motivated violence deliberately targeted against noncombatants. That’s the definition used by the State Department, which officially has designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization under a 1996 law.
Furthermore, despite repeated public and behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade the group to change its stance, Hamas refuses to renounce terrorism and its policy calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. Its media continue their incitement against Israel and Jews, describing them as "pigs and monkeys."
Hamas has engaged in an extensive military campaign of firing rockets and mortars from the Gaza Strip at civilian targets in Israel even though Israel has withdrawn from Gaza. It continues to smuggle long-range Iranian missiles through tunnels originating in Egypt in order to supplement the relatively crude homemade rockets. There is every reason to believe that Hamas would use a cease-fire to continue increasing its arsenal in an effort to provoke an even bloodier conflict.
In a CNN interview Monday, Carter claimed that Hamas has adhered to a cease-fire since August ‘004, which "indicates what they might do so in the future." He said Hamas is "highly disciplined" and capable of keeping any promise of nonviolence it might make.
This remark illustrates Carter’s ignorance of the realities. Hamas has not adhered to a cease-fire since ‘004, having launched hundreds of rockets in the past year, and continues to glorify violence.
For a high-profile person like Carter to put the gloss on Hamas and publicly meet with its leaders at this stage only encourages the terrorist group to believe that if it remains steadfast in its "resistance" and rejectionist rhetoric, the West will try to make deals or concessions without it having to end terrorism and drop its opposition to Israel’s existence.
Of course, why should Hamas expect anything but "understanding" from a man whose book so blatantly and erroneously pins the "apartheid" label on Israel?
Carter tried to justify his plans by saying that he has met with Hamas before. But relatively low-profile meetings before Hamas staged its coup against the Palestinian Authority and launched the recent large-scale rocket attacks against Israel are in a separate category.
The former president notes that some Western pundits and even some Israelis believe that eventually they will have to talk to Hamas. This is irrelevant to Carter’s meeting. Cautious, private, low-key talks through intermediaries are not the same as a high-profile visit by a Nobel laureate and former U.S. president that will provide a propaganda platform for the leader of the major Palestinian terrorist movement.
Despite Carter’s pious statements, his high-profile meetings with Hamas officials will likely prolong and exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than help the peace process.
Michael Kraft is a former senior adviser in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Office and the co-editor of the recently published reference work "The Evolution of U.S. Counterterrorism Policy."