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Published: Monday, 5/5/2008

Carter, unlike Bush, keeps open mind on Israel, Palestinians

FORMER President Jimmy Carter keeps doing the right thing and keeps getting hammered by our government, Israel, and the powerful Israeli lobby in this country. His recent visit to the Middle East and his meetings with Hamas leaders and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were the reason for the latest outburst against Mr. Carter from these familiar quarters. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations set a new low when he called the former president a bigot.

The U.S. government considers Hamas a terrorist organization and has cut off all contacts with the organization. It has instead relied on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party to represent the Palestinian voice in any negotiation with Israel. What we have failed to understand and accept is that it was Fatah's dismal failure at governing that paved the way for the ascendancy of Hamas in January, 2006, elections. One cannot fault Mr. Abbas; he was put in the impossible position of delivering peace when he was totally at the mercy of the United States and Israel for any movement toward that goal.

Hamas' election success two years ago was not an accident. Unlike Fatah, Hamas has been running an extensive network of social services for Palestinians living under the occupation. People vote for those who bring them not only hope for the future, but also help in their daily ordeal of feeding their children.

But, instead of engaging them in a dialogue, the United States stopped all aid and allowed Israel to choke the life out of people in Gaza. This might be an indication of our tough stand against our own narrowly defined terrorism, but it also hardens the sentiments of the people at the receiving end of this brutal and inhumane blockade. As William Butler Yeats wrote in his celebrated poem Easter 1916: "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart." Disenfranchised and impoverished people pushed against a wall retaliate and often act irrationally.

Mr. Carter is known for brokering the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979 which, despite fluctuating volatility of the Middle East, has held. To his credit he has, unlike the Bush Administration, kept an open mind about the Middle East and has continued to engage the Palestinians as well the Israelis. His 2006 best seller Palestine: Peace or Apartheid was an effort to bring the willfully neglected Middle East conflict into focus. It outlined the toll extracted by the escalating cycles of violence on both the Palestinians and the Israelis. It also outlined the inability of Israel to come to terms with the genuine aspiration of Palestinians for an independent state of their own.

While the book was praised as a factual analysis of the current situation and the dilemma Israel and Palestinians face if the conflict is not resolved, it also brought him unprecedented ridicule by the pro-Israel lobby in this country. He was called a senile aging man, Uncle Jimmy, and, worst, anti-Semitic. The subtitle of the book - Peace or Apartheid - was perhaps the most unpalatable for some because of the echoes of South Africa. But then, even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on record as having said that if a Palestinian state is not created, the alternative would be a South African-style apartheid struggle and that would mean "the state of Israel is finished."

And yet, despite all these realities, Israeli policy remains in the clutches of hard-line politicians, settlers in the occupied lands, and their powerful American supporters. No one has found the elusive peace in the long journey from Oslo to Annapolis.

Henry Seigman of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London says that the Middle East peace process may well be the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history. There is neither the will nor the courage on the part of Israel to part with the occupied territories. In 1988, the celebrated Israeli general Moshe Dayan said the question is not "what is the solution, but how we live without a solution."

The official policy of not talking to Hamas and Syria aside, there are many sane voices on both sides of the wide (and widening) Israel-Palestinian gulf that would welcome an end to the age-old conflict. Mr. Carter's effort to talk to Hamas and Syria is consistent with that wish.



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