Concluding a week-long trip to the Middle East, former President Jimmy Carter met yesterday with senior Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. The session came on the heels of meetings that the 84-year-old Carter held with the Israeli Knesset (parliament), members of Irsael’s cabinet, and with West Bank settlement leader Even Shaul Goldstein.
The name “Jimmy Carter” and the term “Middle East,” uttered in the same sentence, are enough to make much of official Washington hold its collective breath. Carter’s past travels in the Middle East, his calls for greater engagement with the terrorist Hamas as critical to negotiated peace with Israel, and his recent years of criticizing Israel have made him controversial, to say the least, in that turbulent part of the world.
Carter’s personal efforts at conflict resolution in the Middle East led to his being shunned by the Bush administration. Admirers of Carter were quick to point out that this hostility came from a Republican President, and that thing could be different between Carter and a fellow Democrat with whom he has a good relationship.
“There is a big difference between Carter operating under Bush [and] Carter operating under Obama,” Alon Liel, former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general, told the Christian Science Monitor. “His efforts had little value during the eight years of the Republicans. They have greater value now. He has access and connections with the leaders of [the] new America.” (At a time when Obama and Hillary Clinton were locked in stiff competition for the Democratic nomination, Carter told reporters how his grandchildren were strong backers of Obama and signaled he would vote for the then-Illinois senator as a “super-delegate” to the Democratic National Convention).
But there was also tension between Carter and the Clinton White House, where the previous Democratic President’s endeavors from South Korea to the Middle East were referred to as “freelance diplomacy.”
“The [Clinton] administration had very mixed ideas about President Carter and his freelancing,” a former Clinton White House staffer who requested anonymity told mel. “On the one hand, President Clinton was obviously worried when he learned [Carter] was overseas in a particular hotspot, such as when he met with [then-ruler] Kim il-Sung in North Korea [in 1994]. On the other hand, after some debate, the administration would look at the contacts President Carter made and the dialogue and say it was probably worth him going.”
This view was echoed by Dr. Ivan Eland, senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace and Liberty for the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Institute.
Eland, a onetime staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congresssional Budget Office, characterized Carter’s involvement in sensitive situations abroad as “sometimes good, sometimes bad. If he says something controversial, it can and will cause some tension. He’s kind of a loose cannon. But if he can reach out to the right parties in a conflict and close the deal, he may do some good.”
Whether Hamas is one of the “right parties” for Carter to reach out to is questionable. A terrorist organization, Hamas’ official charter calls for the destruction of Israel. The organization has broken with the Fata-h wing of the Palestinian government, seized the portion of the Palestinian directorate that is in Gaza, fired rockets across the border, and has held Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit hostage for over two years.
Upon returning to the U.S., Carter will report to Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell on the results of his trip. Whether any tangible results — or, at least the return of Corporal Shalit — come from this visit may determine the value of more “freelance diplomacy.”