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Talking to 'Terrorists'

A counterproductive Washington policy in recent years has been to boycott and punish political factions or governments that refuse to accept U.S. domination. This policy deters the ability of revolutionary or uncooperative leaders to moderate their attitude and demands.

A notable example is Nepal. About twelve years ago, Maoist guerillas launched an effort to modify or overthrow the monarchy and force changes in the nation's political and social life. Although the United States declared the revolutionaries to be terrorists, The Carter Center agreed to help mediate the dispute among the three major factions: royal family, old-line political parties and Maoists.

Six months after the oppressive monarch was removed from power, a cease-fire agreement was consummated. Maoist combatants lay down their arms and the Nepalese Army agreed to remain in barracks.

Our Center continued its involvement and — except for the United States — other nations and international organizations began working with all parties to reconcile the dispute. Ultimately, the Maoists succeeded in achieving their major goals: abolishing the monarchy, establishing a democratic republic, and ending discrimination against untouchables and other groups whose citizenship rights were historically abridged.

After a surprising victory in the April 10 election, Maoists will play a major role in writing a constitution and governing for about two years. For the United States, they are still terrorists.

On our way home from monitoring the Nepalese election, my wife, son, and I were joined in Israel by former Congressman Steven Solarz, Robert Pastor of American University, and Hrair Balian, director of the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program.

Our goal was to learn as much as possible about the region in order to assist in the faltering peace initiative being pursued by President George W. Bush and Secretary Condoleezza Rice.

Although we knew that official U.S. policy was to boycott the government of Syria and leaders of Hamas, we did not receive any negative or cautionary messages about our trip, except that it might be dangerous for us in Gaza (which we did not visit.)

The Carter Center had monitored all three Palestinian elections, including the one for parliamentary seats in January 2006. Hamas earlier prevailed in a number of municipal contests throughout Palestine, gained a reputation for effective and honest administration, and did surprisingly well in the legislative race.

As victors, Hamas offered to form a unity government with Mahmoud Abbas as president and to give key ministries to Fatah, including Foreign Affairs and Finance.

Hamas was declared to be a terrorist organization by the United Sates and Israel, and the elected Palestinian government was forced to dissolve. Eventually, Hamas gained control of Gaza, with its 1.5 million imprisoned Palestinians, and Fatah is "governing" the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Opinion polls show Hamas steadily gaining popularity. Since there can be no peace with Palestinians divided, we believed it important to explore conditions under which Hamas could be brought peacefully back into the discussions. (A recent poll of Israeli citizens, who are familiar with this recent history, showed 64 percent in favor of direct talks between Israel and Hamas.)

Similarly, Israel cannot gain peace with Syria unless the Golan Heights dispute is resolved. Here again, U.S. policy is to ostracize the Syrian government and to prevent bilateral peace talks, contrary to the desire of high Israeli officials.

We met with the leaders of Hamas from Gaza and Syria, and after two days of intense discussion with each other they gave these official responses to our suggestion, designed to enhance prospects for peace:

Hamas will accept any agreement negotiated by Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel provided it is approved either in a Palestinian referendum or by an elected government. The top leader, Khaled Mashaal, has reconfirmed this, although there have been media denials from some subordinates.

Hamas will — when the time comes — accept a proposal relayed through us from Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to form a nonpartisan professional government of technocrats to govern until the next elections can be held.

Hamas will also disband their militia in Gaza if a nonpartisan professional security force can be formed.

A letter will be forthcoming from Corporal Schalit to his parents. When/if Israel agrees to a list of prisoners to be exchanged and the first group are released, Schalit will be sent to Egypt pending the final releases.

Hamas will accept a mutual cease-fire in Gaza, with the expectation (not requirement) that this would later include the West Bank.

Hamas will accept international control of the Rafah crossing, provided the Egyptians and not the Israelis control closing the opening.

In addition, President Bashar Assad of Syria expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights. He only asks that the United States be involved and that knowledge of the peace talks be made public.

Through more official consultations with these outlawed leaders, it may yet be possible to revive the stalemated peace talks between Israel and its neighbors.

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