Former president Jimmy Carter plans to meet next week in Damascus with Khaled Meshal, the head of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in a direct rebuke of the Bush administration’s campaign to isolate it.
The disclosure of Carter’s plans by the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat and subsequent confirmation by sources familiar with his itinerary instantly placed the campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in a political bind.
The campaign of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, was quick to blast Carter’s plans and called on both Obama and Clinton to condemn the meeting with what the State Department lists as a terrorist group.
Both Clinton and Obama issued statements with milder language, saying they “disagreed” or did “not agree” with Carter’s plans.
Carter’s views of the Middle East attracted controversy last year because a book he wrote included tough criticism of Israel’s policies. Indeed, a source close to Carter said that the former president favors Obama but that he has decided not to endorse Obama publicly or formally because he fears it would contribute to hostility toward Obama among Jewish Democrats.
In 2006, Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, won Palestinian legislative elections, ousting the Fatah faction championed by the Bush administration. Hamas then forcibly seized the Gaza Strip last June, splitting the Palestinian territories. Both the Bush administration and the Israeli government have long sought to ostracize Hamas.
However, Carter’s trip would also come at a time when a growing number of experts in the United States and Israel have argued that isolating Hamas is not productive. A poll published in February in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that 64 percent of Israelis favor direct talks with Hamas. Both Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad spy agency, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister, say Hamas can no longer be ignored.
A bipartisan group of foreign-policy luminaries, including former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, issued a statement before the Annapolis peace talks sponsored by the administration in November that said “we believe a genuine dialogue with the organization [Hamas] is far preferable to its isolation.”
The Carter Center, in a statement, confirmed that Carter plans to be in the Middle East this month but declined to elaborate. No senior American representative, in or out of the government, has met with Hamas’s leadership since it was named a terrorist group in the mid-1990s.
Brzezinski, Carter’s former national security adviser and an Obama supporter, said he was unaware of Carter’s plans but said “it is a good idea to talk to Hamas,” given the changing mood in Israel. “Extremist movements, if handled intelligently, can be brought around to embrace” a more moderate approach, he said.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, however, that “former president Carter is a private citizen” and, “United States Government policy is unchanged: Hamas is a terrorist organization. They can’t have one foot in politics and one foot in terror.”
McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said the candidate “believes it is a serious and dangerous mistake for Americans of any stature to meet with an organization like Hamas that is committed to the destruction of Israel and regularly conducts terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis.”
Phil Singer, a Clinton spokesman, said, “Hillary respects former president Carter but disagrees with his decision,” adding: “She would not meet with Hamas without coordinating with Israel.”
Obama has said he is willing to meet with officials of hostile governments, but he puts Hamas in a different category.
Spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama “does not agree with President Carter’s decision to go forward with this meeting because he does not support negotiations with Hamas until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements.”