Israel Doesn't Want to Know Carter Any More

JERUSALEM - Three decades after he brokered the first-ever peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has become persona non grata in the Jewish state.

Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak refused to meet with him during his four-day visit here. So did former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused Carter of holding "anti-Israel views in recent years."

In a highly irregular move, Israel's Shin Bet security service refused to assist U.S. agents guarding Carter. The Shin Bet, which is overseen by Olmert's office, is routinely involved in assisting with the protection of visiting dignitaries.

Israeli leaders are furious over the former president's plans to meet with Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal during his trip to Syria this week. Some Israeli politicians have called Carter's readiness to meet with an organisation whose founding charter calls for Israel's destruction and which has carried out most of the suicide attacks and rocket attacks on Israel a "legitimisation of terror."

Carter, who arrived in Israel on Sunday, did visit the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been peppered with rockets by Palestinian militants in Gaza. Presented with a local souvenir -- a piece of rocket fired from the coastal strip -- the former president called the attacks a "despicable crime."

But condemnation of the rocket attacks by Carter, who brokered the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978, has not won over Israeli leaders, who continued to snub him throughout his visit.

His decision to lay a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah -- something U.S. President George W. Bush and other U.S. political leaders have pointedly refused to do -- certainly did not help to soften official Israeli animus. Neither did his meeting with Naser al-Shaer, who served as deputy prime minister in the government formed by Hamas after it won parliamentary elections in January 2006.

One person who did meet Carter was President and three times former prime minister Shimon Peres. But Israel's President used the meeting to chastise his guest for his decision to meet Meshal, whom Peres said was behind Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in June last year when they routed the more moderate Fatah movement.

Peres told Carter that his actions in recent years had harmed Israel and the cause of peace. Israel's elder statesman was referring also to the former U.S. president's 2006 book 'Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid' in which he compared Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza with those of the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the rightist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, was the only other senior Israeli politician to meet Carter. "Meeting a terrorist like Khaled Meshal only encourages and increases terrorism," he told the ex-president.

But the snubs have failed to deter Carter. Nor has the criticism of his visit by the Bush administration. Asked about Carter's planned meeting with Meshal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she found it "hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is, in fact, the impediment to peace."

If Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, Carter argues, Hamas cannot be excluded from the process. "I think it is absolutely crucial that in the final and dreamed-about and prayed-for peace agreement for this region that Hamas be involved and Syria be involved," he said during his visit.

"I can't say that they will be amenable to any suggestions, but at least after I meet with them I can go back and relay what they say, as just a communicator, to the leaders of the United States."

He would use his meeting with Meshal, he said, to try and get the Hamas leader "to agree to a peaceful resolution of differences" with Israel and with Fatah.

Israel, the U.S. and many European states ostracised the Hamas government which was formed after the Islamic movement won parliamentary elections in January 2006 and refused to accede to three demands laid down by the international community -- recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acknowledgement of previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. After Hamas forcibly seized control of Gaza in June last year, Israel imposed a blockade on the coastal strip and declared the Hamas government there an "enemy entity."

Yet Carter will be encouraged by the fact that not all Israelis oppose contact with Hamas. In fact, a poll published in the daily Haaretz newspaper in February found that 64 percent of Israelis supported direct talks with Hamas over a ceasefire and over the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive in the strip by the Islamic movement since June 2006. Only 28 percent said they opposed such talks.

Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has said that Israel needs to engage Hamas in dialogue. So has Ephraim Halevy, a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency.

During his visit, Carter met with Shalit's father, Noam, and told him that the matter of his son's release -- now being negotiated by Israel and Hamas, with Egypt acting as a go-between -- would be at the top of his agenda when he met Meshal. Shalit said he believed that the very fact Carter "isn't considered pro-Israeli according to the American tradition, could help him meet with certain people." This, he added, put Carter in a position to "raise ideas that would be viewed with suspicion if they were raised by other people."

In an editorial titled 'Our debt to Jimmy Carter', the daily Haaretz newspaper decried the decision to boycott the former U.S. president. "Whether Carter's approach to conflict resolution is considered by the Israeli government as appropriate or defeatist, no one can take away from the former U.S. president his international standing, nor the fact that he brought Israel and Egypt to a signed peace that has since held," the newspaper wrote.

"Carter's method, which says that it is necessary to talk with everyone, has still not proven to be any less successful than the method that calls for boycotts and air strikes...For the peace agreement with Egypt, he deserves the respect reserved for royalty for the rest of his life."

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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