Will Carter's Hamas foray bear fruit?

The former president said Monday that the Islamist militants are prepared to accept the right of Israel to 'live as a neighbor next door in peace.'

After defying the US-led boycott on Hamas by meeting its leaders in Damascus, Syria, former President Jimmy Carter told Israelis in Jerusalem Monday that the Islamist militants assured him they would respect a peace treaty ratified by the Palestinian public.

Despite this stated shift in Hamas's rejection of a peace treaty with Israel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate cautioned that he is not about to coax Israel and Hamas together in the same way he shepherded Israelis and Egyptians to their watershed peace treaty in 1979.

"I don't ever intend to be a mediator between any of the disputing groups … that's not my goal," he said in a speech. "I don't have any expectation that I would be an acceptable spokesperson for either the US or Israel."

At the end of his Middle East tour, the remark highlights a key question about President Carter's freelance diplomacy: What value is there to talks with groups like Hamas – called a "terrorist organization" by the US and Israel – when the messenger himself does not speak on anyone's behalf?

Israel and Hamas already have a channel of talks via Egypt, which is being used to negotiate a prisoner swap to free Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit from nearly two years of captivity in Gaza. The Egyptians are also thought to be mediating talks on a cease-fire and the reopening of the border between Gaza and Egypt.

Carter, who was snubbed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the trip, reported that Hamas rejected his suggestion that it declare a unilateral truce with Israel and free Corporal Shalit in return for the release of jailed Hamas political leaders and Palestinian women and children prisoners. But, he said, Hamas did agree to forward a letter from Shalit to his parents and to a two-stage prisoner exchange in which the captured soldier would be transferred to Egypt in between waves of prisoner releases by Israel.

Carter also insisted that Hamas would accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an accord negotiated by the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas if it were put to a referendum or a Palestinian legislature is elected with a majority in support.

While Hamas leaders have said they support a long-term truce with Israel along the 1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza, they have consistently rejected a peace treaty.

"This is enormous," says Gershon Baskin, copresident of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. "It's the first indication that Hamas is turning its back on its own covenant of never recognizing Israel."

But Magnus Ranstorp, the author of several books on Hamas, is doubtful that the Islamists have made the ideological shift.

"They have fought a long time and they have a very long-range vision of the future, and one has to be aware of that in gauging their true intentions. Their red lines have not changed," says Dr. Ranstorp, of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. He says that it's more likely Hamas seeks new legitimacy through Carter's visit.

"What I see is, 'this is how we can get back into the international community, and to use Carter's visit to gain some momentum,' " he says. "They could do something that wasn't expected or thought possible. But I am still a skeptic."

Hamas accepts the establishment of a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict but would not recognize the Jewish state, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Monday, Reuters reported. Commenting on efforts by Carter to persuade Hamas to back peace talks between Mr. Abbas and Israel, Mr. Meshaal said his Islamist group would "respect Palestinian national will even if it was against our convictions."

Though the former president is remembered fondly in Israel for the Egyptian peace treaty, he has outraged many with his book linking policies in the Palestinian territories to the South African system of racial apartheid.

"He's saying we should talk and he's talking. Whether this brings tangible benefits depends on both sides of the conflict and how they view Carter," says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East expert. "The Israelis are quite happy with the Bush administration's approach to the conflict and see no need to back Carter. On the other hand, he is more useful to Hamas because he's risking so much trying to bring them into the equitation."

Carter's mission coincided with an upsurge in border fighting between Israel and Hamas, with the militants launching attacks that killed three soldiers. Israel's retaliation left more than 20 Palestinians dead, including a Reuters cameraman.

Nicholas Pelham, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says Carter's mission erodes the taboo of engaging Hamas and could help Israel "climb down the tree" from the three requirements – recognize Israel, accept previous agreements, and forswear violence – for speaking to the militants.

To be sure, Abbas's PA has been skeptical. "If Carter intended to convince Hamas to accept the commitment of the PA, like to the two-state solution, that's fine," says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "But at the end of the day, Carter is the head of the Carter institute in Atlanta."

Even those who recognize a need to engage Hamas have questioned Carter's preference of public diplomacy. Yair Hirschfeld, an Israeli political scientist who helped run the secret talks between Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that became known as the Oslo Accord, said talking to the media should come last.

Still, Carter's announcement about Hamas's flexibility on the Shalit swap is meaningful. "It's not the way I would have prepared it. But ... the proof of the pudding is in the eating," says Mr. Hirschfeld.

Ilene R. Prusher contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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