Jimmy Carter took a trip to Israel and Syria this week to try and push the peace process forward. The trip was a failure on many fronts, which points to the hopelessness of the situation in Israel/Palestine.
Mr. Carter's trip started off on a bad note. The Bush administration and the Israel government of Ehud Olmert decried his planned meeting with Khaled Meshal, Hamas's exiled political leader, and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also distanced themselves from Mr. Carter's talks in Syria. John McCain lambasted them.
The political climate got even chillier though. Not only did Israeli leaders, for the most part, shun the former U.S. president, but, in an unprecedented move, Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service, seems to have declined to coordinate security with Mr. Carter's U.S. secret service entourage. Meanwhile, back home in the U.S., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that the State Department had explicitly told Mr. Carter not to meet with Mr Meshal, a claim Mr. Carter calls "absolutely false". I tend to find Jimmy Carter more credible than Madame Rice.
The uproar over Mr. Carter's trip is more than enough evidence to show that the prospects for peace are not good. Far from a diplomatic foible, as many are trying to characterize the trip as, a meeting with Hamas is far overdue and is the best hope for any peace settlement - oh that a peace settlement was wanted by the West and the Israeli government. Hamas has at least some legitimacy among the Palestinian people, more than Fatah can claim. They were elected into government in 2006, only to be immediately boycotted by the international community, and plotted against by the United States in a failed coup attempt (see here). Since Hamas is such a crucial part of the political landscape, it is absolutely ridiculous to ostracize them.
Israel understands this well, and this is why it has continually been in contact with Hamas - not officially of course. The history of Israel's contact with Hamas goes back to its founding, which was helped by Israel's secret service in order to counter balance the PLO. More recently, as Robert Fisk has reported, the Israeli army was in contact with Hamas in order to undermine Arafat and the Oslo agreement. It can also be assured that there is constant, clandestine discussion between the Israeli government and Hamas, especially since the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.
In other words, all of this grandstanding we see going on is completely empty, for political purposes. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has a shaky coalition government that, by design, must pander to extremist elements, and make a big noise about any sensible discussion between political entities. America is beset with narrow-minded Zionists, who cannot understand the grave implications of a continued occupation of the Palestinians, and are flummoxed when anyone exposes the apartheidesque policies of Israel for what they are - as Jimmy Carter did in his book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid".
So all of this context leads us back to Jimmy Carter's trip. He met with Mr. Assad of Syria, reporting that the President thinks that "about 85 percent" of the issues blocking a peace deal between Israel and Syria have been resolved. Mr. Carter also met with Mr. Meshal, who, Mr. Carter says, promised that Hamas would respect the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza if such a state were approved by the Palestinian people in a referendum. Mr. Carter could not secure a release of Gilad Shalit, nor could he commit Hamas to a unilateral ceasefire, at least without some Israeli concessions.
The best thing that came out of Mr. Carter's trip was the, not so revelatory, realization that such a discussion with Hamas can take place. The real question is why Mr. Carter is one of the first to give talks a try. Why hasn't the EU, the U.N., Israel, the U.S., or Tony Blair - envoy on behalf of the EU, UN, U.S. and Russia - talked to one of the most important political players in the ongoing conflict. The lame-old excuse that "we don't talk to terrorists" is tired, and doesn't stand up to any historical scrutiny.
Mr. Carter's trip, and all of the indignation that has gone with it, when taken as part of recent events such as the continued building of settlements in the West Bank by Israel, the killing of Palestinians by Israeli's and Israeli's by Palestinians, the ongoing siege of Gaza and the collective misery it has caused, the hollow pronouncements of present future U.S. presidents on the issue (excluding Nader/Gonzalez of course) and the willingness of despotic Arab government to turn a blind eye to all of it, against the wishes of their people, lead me to conclude that Carter's high-minded goals are unrealistic and destined to fail; unless something big happens.
What could it be, where could it come from? I don't know. Maybe it could come from the U.S., with the people voting for a president other than then the stale three. Maybe it could come from the Middle East - no, I don't think so. Maybe it could come from within Israel, with the ousting of this hawkish and expansionist government. Call me a pessimist; I think this mess is going to last a lot longer than anyone wants to contemplate.