When Fox News reported today from Gaza that former President Jimmy Carter plans to urge President Barack Obama to take the Palestinian militant group Hamas off the U.S. terrorist list in meetings later this week, Washington Democrats and the Obama administration collectively cringed.
"The president has addressed Hamas questions, including in the Egypt speech," an administraton official said. "[We] won't have more to say about this."
"Just like with President Clinton, Carter is becoming a huge problem and a growing concern for Obama," a Washington Middle East hand said. "They are very pissed with him."
After observing Lebanon's elections, Carter visited Damascus last week and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, as well as exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal. This week, he met with Israeli settlers in the West Bank and toured Gaza with top Hamas leader Ismail Haniya as his guide. His trip to Damascus came a day ahead of that of Obama Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell.
Carter's objectives in Gaza, a Washington Middle East expert familiar with the matter told The Cable, are "to open up Gaza, and to see what he can do to pave the way to some [sort of] engagement between Hamas and the U.S.," the expert said, on condition of anonymity, cautioning that he didn't think any such engagement would happen anytime soon. "And to see whether Hamas can shift its position, and the U.S. can shift its position. ... I think he is smart enough to realize they aren't going to come off the terror list."
"Don't forget people in Gaza were spreading rumors last week that Carter was bringing Hamas a letter from Obama," the expert added. "It's absurd, but it made the rounds for a day."
Don't overreact to an unconfirmed news report, agreed veteran U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. "This is Jimmy Carter being Jimmy Carter," Miller said by email. "I didn't see any confirmation that Carter intends to ask the administration to remove Hamas from the terrorism list; more likely he'll urge Obama at the right time to consider opening up a dialogue with Hamas."
"But that's a key to an empty room right now given everything that Obama is trying to do with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ] Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas," Miller continued. "In fact, the way to lose both of them and much of Congress to boot would be to do precisely what the former president recommends."
Seeking to deflect a potential firestorm from the unconfirmed report, the National Jewish Democratic Council's Ira Forman suggested that instead of taking Hamas off the terrorism list, people should put Carter on a list of people one shouldn't pay attention to. "When someone is saying something so outrageous, even if they're a Democrat, we can't take them seriously."
Mitchell didn't directly address Carter's mission at his first State Department news conference Tuesday. But asked about recent statements from Hamas officials urging that the United States to talk to them without preconditions, and asserting that they seek a Palestinian state in land confined to that seized by Israel during the 1967 war, Mitchell said Hamas is welcome to join talks if it agrees to what he called a "democratic dialogue," which he later specified to be the so-called Quartet conditions. "We made our position clear," Mitchell said. "We welcome the participation of any party that meets the requirements of a democratic dialogue."
Like Mitchell, White House officials and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly said Hamas members could join a Palestinian unity government if they agree to renounce terror, recognize Israel and abide by past agreements, the conditions set out by the so-called Middle East Quartet made up of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union. Hamas's 1988 charter calls explicitly for the destruction of Israel.
Carter himself has reiterated that message to Hamas, according to reports. "I called on Hamas leaders that I met with in Damascus and I told Hamas leaders in Gaza today to accept these conditions," the former president reportedly said after his meeting with Haniya. "They made several statements, and showed readiness to join the peace [process] and move towards establishing a just and independent Palestinian state."
Behind the scenes, there have been some debates in mostly left-leaning Washington and European Middle East circles about whether there should be a softening of conditions to facilitate Hamas members joining a Palestinian unity government. Those who advocate it are concerned that with Fatah only representing the West Bank, and Gaza controlling Hamas, there is not a sufficiently representative Palestinian entity that the United States can push Israel to negotiate with for a two-state solution. One option being floated in the region by independent Palestinians would be to relax conditions in order to achieve a Palestinian technocratic unity government that would mainly prepare for Palestinian elections scheduled for early next year, and then dissolve.
But there's no sign that such ideas have any traction inside the Obama administration.
Indeed, administration officials have indicated that Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief and the lead negotiator on Palestinian unity government talks, has explicitly urged them in meetings not to soften the conditions for Hamas to join a Palestinian unity government. (Some veteran Middle East hands say that neither Egypt, concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an affiliate, nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is enthusiastic about including Hamas in a Palestinian power-sharing government and may be happier if one doesn't materialize.)
Mitchell told journalists today that he would plow ahead with comprehensive Middle East peace talks with the parties that show up in the room, and meet the conditions that have been established.
For its part, Hamas has welcomed Carter's attention. "Someone as high-profile as Carter, coming to the region to meet with Hamas and the government of Ismail Haniya but also [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas, is very positive," the Christian Science Monitor quoted Hamas advisor Ahmed Yousef. "He can convey messages to President Obama about the situation in Gaza and in the West Bank and the consequences this blockade has had on our lives. Carter is the messenger that we trust - and that the world community trusts."
What's prompting the recent stream of Hamas interviews and requests for dialogue with Washington? "I think they are intrigued by Obama," the Washington Middle East expert familiar with the matter said. "They saw his [Cairo] speech that had both things that they couldn't swallow and things they are extremely intrigued by. For the first time they are a bit curious, even very curious. And in some ways, they don't know how to deal with him and don't know what to do."
But perhaps not yet quite curious enough or convinced they're going to get left behind to find a way to agree to Obama's conditions for dialogue.
Photo by Muhammad Alostaz/Hamas via Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.