Jimmy Carter, the 83-year-old former US president, has been on a "study mission" to our region, visiting Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. On Monday, back in Jerusalem, Carter announced what he'd learned: The Arabs want peace; the problem is Israel.
Carter met with Hamas leaders in Cairo and Damascus and held a joint session with both factions in Damascus. He came out of those sessions convinced that Hamas wants peace.
The former president sounds like a moral relativist, for whom there are no universal truths by which to judge behavior. This is manifested in the juxtapositions he so effortlessly makes. Speaking Monday, he denounced the Palestinians' "despicable terrorism" against Sderot. Yet when Israel tracks down and arrests the "despicable" terrorists, Carter gets equally passionate about the need to release them - 11,600 (Carter's numbers) now in Israeli prisons, "many of them women and children."
To Carter's muddled thinking, Palestinians and Israelis are equally responsible for the conflict. After all, Palestinians launch Kassams into Israeli kindergartens, and Israelis live over the Green Line.
Since Annapolis, Carter claims, there's been no real progress because of "settlements" and "roadblocks" and because Israel has turned Gaza into one big prison. That Jews also have claims in Judea and Samaria, that checkpoints have proven to keep terrorists from blowing up buses and cafes, that every last Israeli soldier and "settler" has been yanked out of Gaza - none of this turned up in Carter's study mission.
But he did conclude that "despair leads some people on both sides to resort to violence."
Carter professes to understand why Israel is "reluctant" to negotiate with Hamas. The organization refuses to renounce violence, has "yet" to recognize Israel and doesn't accept the 1993 Oslo Accords. But Carter forgives all this. He "understands" that Hamas feels "some violence is necessary" to keep the Palestinian issue alive, and that when the organization is sidelined, the "cycle of violence" is exacerbated.
Carter spent seven hours with Hamas leaders during which they told him they would accept Israel's existence if it withdrew to the 1949 Armistice Lines; if any deal reached between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas was approved in a Palestinian referendum; and if Hamas had the prerogative to disagree with the referendum results.
To sum up Carter's assessment: Hamas wants peace. It is ready now for a cease-fire - even one that doesn't immediately include the West Bank. It also supports the Arab League peace plan that could flood Israel with millions of refugees - a scheme no Israeli government could accept.
That Hamas carried out an attack against the Kerem Shalom border crossing on Saturday, wounding 13 soldiers - while its leaders were telling Carter they supposedly wanted peace - is irrelevant, Carter insists, because the mission had been planned "months in advance."
WE ARE grateful to Carter for raising the issue of Gilad Schalit with his interlocutors. The former president promises that Hamas will now allow the kidnapped soldier to write a second letter to his parents. At the same time, he should know that Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have routine access to the Red Cross and can write to their loved ones even without presidential intervention.
Carter, of all people, ought also to know how far Israel is prepared to go for peace. It ceded every inch of the Sinai to Anwar Sadat. But the Egyptian leader first demonstrated that he genuinely sought an accommodation with Israel.
When King Hussein embraced Yitzhak Rabin, a peace treaty resulted 100 days later.
One could imagine a situation in which Israel would talk with Hamas. After all, when Yasser Arafat claimed to be ready to end the "armed struggle," Israelis desperately tried to reach an accord with him. A Hamas that is prepared for real compromise will always find Israel ready.
Shortly after meeting with Carter, though, a Hamas spokesman declared that the Islamists remained committed to "resistance" and opposed Egyptian cease-fire proposals.
Carter's "study mission" failed to uncover the obvious: Hamas is a toxic opponent of peace. Too bad that in the twilight of his public life, Carter has undermined the relative moderates among the Palestinians and become an apologist for violent religious fanatics.