Carter, Hamas, and Negotiating with Terrorists

By: Greg C. Reeson

Former President Jimmy Carter raised more than a few eyebrows with his Middle East excursion for talks with leaders of the terrorist group Hamas. Many articles have been written about Carter’s motives, his hidden agenda, his bias against Israel, and his demonstrated distaste for all things Bush. And while it is understandable that many would be outraged by the fact that a former president would take it upon himself to undermine the current president by meeting with Hamas, Carter’s trip raises the bigger issue of whether or not we should negotiate with terrorists as a means for seeking peace in the Middle East.

One of the leading arguments for negotiating with terrorists is that no true peace can be achieved unless all interested parties are involved in political and violence-ending discussions. Carter himself has made this argument, saying that no lasting peace can be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians unless Hamas is part of the process. The problem, though, is that dealing directly with Hamas confers a sense of legitimacy to a terrorist organization that many, including this author, find inappropriate and unacceptable.

Of course, some would argue that legitimacy was granted to Hamas by virtue of the group’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. However, I would argue that Hamas’ electoral victory means only that the Palestinian people, and not the American people, are forced to deal with the group. Whether Hamas was elected in a free and fair manner, and therefore serves as the proper representative of the Palestinian people, is irrelevant. What matters is that Carter is asking Israel, and in essence, the United States, to sit down at the negotiating table with an organization that is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state and has used terrorist tactics to kill hundreds of people, including Americans, over the past two decades.

To understand the mindset of Hamas, one only has to read the words of the group’s foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar, published in an opinion piece by the Washington Post this past week. In the article, Zahar lambastes the United States and Israel, and calls Carter’s trip “sensible.” He refers to the killings of innocent Israeli civilians as “resistance,” and lays out Hamas’ conditions for even beginning discussions with Israel: withdrawal to 1967 borders; dismantling of all Jewish settlements; complete Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; an abandonment of Israeli claims to Jerusalem; a release of all Palestinian prisoners; and an end to the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territories. Of course, there is no mention in the article about Hamas putting an end to the rockets that are pounding Israel on a daily basis, nor is there any mention of release for Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since the summer of 2006. Instead, al-Zahar demands that Hamas be included in any political process without preconditions.

What Hamas has learned is that Israel and the West reward their use of violence and terrorist tactics. Israel has tried withdrawing from Palestinian areas before in exchange for promises of peace. Yet each time, reductions in the Israeli presence are met with more rockets, more kidnappings, and more suicide bombings. The United States condemns Hamas’ actions, but the United Nations can accomplish little more than resolutions critical of Israel’s “occupation” and imposition of economic sanctions against the Palestinians.

Another argument used by those in favor of negotiating with terrorists is that efforts should be made to support moderate actors while marginalizing the radicals within the group. This is considerably harder than it sounds. Moderates may be hesitant to come forward in an environment where hardliners dominate, and it is typically the radicals who are in control of groups that employ terrorist tactics. Besides, it is extremely difficult to talk to any member of a group that is attacking your country and your citizens, no matter how moderate some of its members may seem. Thus far, Hamas has failed to demonstrate its willingness to renounce violence in order to establish an environment conducive to negotiations for peace.

Negotiating with terrorists conveys a sense of weakness and tells terrorists everywhere that violent methods will at some point bring the West to the bargaining table. Communication with terrorists, through third parties such as regional allies, might be acceptable, but only to inform the terrorists that violence will not yield concessions. Communication is different than negotiation, and negotiation should not be an option until the violence has stopped.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was completely justified in not meeting with Carter while the former president was traveling through Israel. Despite his insistence that the trip was a personal mission of peace, Carter is recognized and accepted in the region as a former president of the United States, a title that brings with it a sense of legitimacy and reward that no private individual could ever convey. By meeting with Hamas, Carter showed his complete contempt for the Israeli government, U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region, and President George W. Bush. And he did nothing to convince Hamas to lay down its arms and use its political clout for the betterment of the Palestinian people.

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