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Carter Meeting Sparks New Debate Over Engaging Hamas

April 18, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met Friday with leaders from Hamas, a militant group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel. The meeting sparked renewed debate over whether any negotiations should include the Palestinian group.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A former U.S. president talks to a Palestinian leader labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government. Margaret Warner picks up that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Former President Jimmy Carter’s unofficial Mideast peace mission this week has taken him to Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the most controversial stop by far was his meeting today in Syria with Khaled Mashal, the exiled political leader of the Palestinian organization Hamas.

Hamas, labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, currently controls the Palestinian Gaza Strip. But the U.S. and Israel talk only to the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.

Jimmy Carter has said no peace agreement can be reached without talking to Hamas.

For two views on the Carter talks, we turn to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Mark Perry, an author and journalist who is now co-director of the Conflicts Forum. It’s a British-American organization promoting engagement between the West and political Islam.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Disagreement over preconditions

Robert Satloff
Institute for Near East Policy
Jimmy Carter may be a fairly marginal political actor in the United States, but abroad he's viewed as an ex-president and a Nobel Peace Prize-winner. He lends the credibility of his office to meeting with a terrorist organization.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Perry, should Jimmy Carter have met with Khaled Mashal and, if so, to what end?

MARK PERRY, Conflicts Forum: Absolutely he should have met with him, and here's why. There are three very good reasons.

First, Hamas won an election in January 2006 in the Palestinian Authority, and it wasn't even close, and it was the most transparent, open and fair elections in Arab world history.

Second, they retain prestige among the Palestinian people. All polls show that they retain their strength.

And, third, most recently, their leaders have been showing real moderation. They want an opening to the United States. This is their opportunity, and Jimmy Carter is capitalizing on that. We should be talking to Hamas.

MARGARET WARNER: So what's the harm?

ROBERT SATLOFF, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: This is a grave mistake. Jimmy Carter may be a fairly marginal political actor in the United States, but abroad he's viewed as an ex-president and a Nobel Peace Prize-winner. He lends the credibility of his office to meeting with a terrorist organization.

And it's not just the United States and Israel that have conditions on meeting with Hamas. It's the entire major bodies of the world, the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, the quartet in general.

There are very clear conditions. It's not as though we will never meet with Hamas. There are conditions: renounce violence, recognize Israel, and be willing to engage in diplomacy.

These are the conditions that we had 20 years ago for the PLO, and Carter is today offering Hamas recognition, not even demanding what we required of the PLO 20 years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that's a good thing -- first, you agree that for Jimmy Carter, a former president, to meet with Hamas leadership is regarded, certainly in the Arab world, among the Palestinians, as legitimizing him and, secondly, it is designated a terrorist organization.

MARK PERRY: Well, the PLO was designated a terrorist organization, and we had preconditions on them, and they never met them. My colleague is wrong about this: They never met them. They said, "We will have talks and then we will meet the conditions."

And let's look at this honestly. The quartet has said that they will set three conditions: to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to agree to all prior agreements.

And when you talk to Hamas -- and I have talked to Hamas -- they said, "If we agree to those three conditions, what's there to talk about? Those three conditions are the result of negotiations, not a precondition of negotiations. We're willing to talk now. Let's talk about those three conditions."

What's wrong with that?

Hamas has its own preconditions

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
We have to listen and we have to read very carefully what Hamas has been saying. We can't ignore it. And this was real progress this week from Hamas leaders.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you this, because the foreign minister of Hamas in Gaza wrote an op-ed this week in which he said, "Oh, we're willing to talk to Israel," but he laid down equally stringent conditions, you know, that Israel had to withdraw to '67 borders, repudiate all its annexation of any parts of Jerusalem, dismantle all settlements, essentially what you'd ask for in a peace agreement. How is that any different?

MARK PERRY: Well, it was really quite an extraordinary op-ed piece, wasn't it, in the Washington Post? He said the '67 borders. That's the first time we've heard that from a Hamas leader.

He said the '67 lines. He has virtually given de facto recognition to Israel.

He also talked about refugees returning to what would be Palestine. That is an acknowledgement that refugees won't talk to Israel.

He also acknowledged the courage of the Jewish people in the Warsaw ghetto. That is an acknowledgement that Israel exists and he is willing to deal with this.

We have to listen and we have to read very carefully what Hamas has been saying. We can't ignore it. And this was real progress this week from Hamas leaders.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Look, if this is real progress, then Mark must be reading a different editorial. I mean, don't listen to me. Listen to what the Washington Post wrote on its own newspaper editorial on the opposite side of the page.

MARGARET WARNER: But what do you think, when you read Zahar's op-ed?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I think it was very useful, because Zahar laid out clearly that his objective is not the '67 borders. His objective is the destruction of Israel.

The foundational crime of the Jewish people, he talked about. He talked about that our battle against Israel has not even begun today. And it's not about the West Bank and Gaza; it's about the existence of the state.

I mean, this is indeed what separates whatever debate there is today about Hamas and the debate 20 years ago about the PLO. The PLO debate was between some who argued we need to destroy Israel and others -- thankfully, we hope now, the majority -- who believe in a division, a repartition, two-state solution.

In Hamas, there's no such debate. The debate there is between those who argue for a brief lull in the fighting against Israel and those who argue for a longer lull in the fighting against Israel.

A purely local issue?

Robert Satloff
Institute for Near East Policy
[W]e should have no engagement with Hamas that can be interpreted by them as us endowing them with any credibility at all until they have paid the entry ticket into diplomacy.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do you say to what Jimmy Carter has said? And he gave a speech in Cairo, I think it was yesterday, saying there's no way you can have a peace agreement just between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, that Hamas is at least an equal player here.

Can a peace agreement be negotiated without Hamas?

ROBERT SATLOFF: We have seen this movie before. This was the same argument about the PLO in the '70s. And what the world community -- contrary to what Mark said -- what the world community said is, if you want PLO to be part, and today if you want Hamas to be part, the answer isn't, "No, never."

The answer is only if you agree on the entry ticket, and the entry ticket is not onerous. It's recognizing that the partner is Israel and that the issue isn't about Tel Aviv; it's about the West Bank and Gaza.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me bring it back to the U.S. and briefly, if you could, because this is about Jimmy Carter, former president. Should the U.S. policy be to engage somehow with Hamas, even if we don't ask Israel to negotiate with them?

MARK PERRY: Well, I've never believed that we should dictate to Israel what their foreign policy should be. It's very clear to me that Israel is going to set the standard here.

And it's very clear to me that Israel would like to have an opening. There are key Israeli officials, retired and currently serving, who believe that there cannot be a peace agreement without Hamas.

We should let them act. We should let them talk to Hamas. It's inevitable. There cannot be a peace deal without Hamas; Israeli leaders know that.

MARGARET WARNER: So should the U.S., at least, deal -- maybe in a more private way -- but with Hamas?

ROBERT SATLOFF: No. I think that -- I mean, other than an intelligence fashion, figuring out what the next terrorist action may be, we should have no engagement with Hamas that can be interpreted by them as us endowing them with any credibility at all until they have paid the entry ticket into diplomacy.

Good or bad, Carter offers change

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
There's a crack in the door... I don't think the Bush administration is going to walk through this door anytime soon, but I think that Jimmy Carter hasn't gone there to lecture. He's gone there to listen.

MARGARET WARNER: And so bottom line here, what, in the best-case scenario, Mark Perry, do you think that Jimmy Carter's meetings with various Hamas leaders this week, culminating in that one today, might have achieved?

MARK PERRY: There's a crack in the door. There's light in the door. Other people are going to have to walk through it.

I don't think the Bush administration is going to walk through this door anytime soon, but I think that Jimmy Carter hasn't gone there to lecture. He's gone there to listen.

And the Bush administration needs to start to listen to what Hamas leaders are saying. And what they're saying is, "It's time to talk." And I think that's a good message.

ROBERT SATLOFF: I think the message is very negative. It has told Hamas leaders that perhaps in Washington there are important people who are reconsidering, who are lowering the bar that will let them through the door without them having to pay what they need to pay to get the credibility of engagement with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Rob Satloff, Mark Perry, thank you both.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rob Satloff and Mark Perry will answer your questions about President Carter's meeting with Hamas leaders on our Web site at PBS.org.