Washington — Former president Jimmy Carter’s plan to meet with the exiled leader of Hamas in Damascus is drawing criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. According to an April 9 report in the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat, Carter is scheduled to meet April 18 with Khaled Meshaal.
Carter would become the first American senior statesman to break the longstanding policy of boycotting Hamas until it renounces terrorism and recognizes the State of Israel.
Carter’s decision to meet with the leader of Hamas, which is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, is yet another step in the former president’s shift away from the mainstream approach in Washington to Middle East peacemaking. It is also seen as distancing him even further from the Jewish and pro-Israel community in the United States. Carter, who brokered the 1978 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, has since been increasingly critical of Israel’s settlement policy and was accused of harboring antisemitic and anti-Zionist views after publishing his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
The Carter Center in Atlanta confirmed that the former president will visit Damascus as part of his Middle East trip, but it would not specifically comment on a meeting with Meshaal. Ha-mas sources quoted in the Arab media confirmed that the meeting will take place, adding that Carter initially wanted to meet with local Hamas leaders in Gaza but changed his mind after Israel denied him permission to enter the area.
The former president is part of a group of former world leaders known as “The Elders” that was established with the aim of bringing about peaceful solutions to some of the world’s toughest conflicts. Carter, along with former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, is scheduled to lead an Elders mission to the Middle East in mid-April, after which the group is expected to issue a report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli government turned down the group’s offer to mediate and announced it would not cooperate with Carter and other members of the mission.
Back in Washington, word of Carter’s scheduled meeting with the Hamas leaders drew immediate criticism from both Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls.
The Republican Jewish Coalition challenged Senators John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to “speak out forcefully” against Carter’s meeting with Meshaal. The challenge was quickly answered when all three campaigns issued statements expressing their disagreement with Carter’s decision.
Obama told the JTA on April 9 that while he does intend, if elected, to meet with leaders of rouge states, he opposes contacts with leaders of Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Car-ter has not yet endorsed any of the Democratic candidates. According to a report in the Washington Post, Carter favors Obama but does not want to publicly embrace him, since he believes it will have an adverse effect on Jewish voters.
As of press time, the State Department had not commented on Carter’s reported plans to meet Meshaal, but did say that Carter was advised by administration official that meetings with Syrian officials in the past “had not produced positive results.”
American law does not prohibit meetings with members of groups designated as terrorist organizations and limits the sanctions against them to outlawing American citizens from provid-ing these groups with material support. The State Department does stress in its official publications, however, that designating a group as a terrorist entity is intended to stigmatize and isolate it internationally.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.