Cairo--By coincidence I was in Cairo today when former President Jimmy Carter arrived here to meet with a delegation from Hamas over the vociferous objections of Israel and the United States. I had served as Deputy Senior Advisor for Middle East Affairs in Carter's White House, and was on the front line defending him before a hostile Jewish community during his failed 1980 reelection campaign, so I had more than a passing interest in the Cairo encounter.
Despite his success in forging the breakthrough Israel-Egyptian peace treaty between Begin and Sadat in 1978, Carter's perceived one-sided advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people turned many American Jews against him. It was a particularly perplexing predicament for Carter, who understandably believed he was laying the groundwork for a comprehensive Middle East peace, and I was proud to be associated with him and that effort. Nevertheless, when he left the White House, Carter had so alienated the Jewish community with his holier than thou approach to Middle East peace, that the legacy of that Camp David achievement has become a veritable forsaken heirloom.
Two decades later, in 1996, Carter came to Morocco when I served as U.S. ambassador there, and he and our wives had dinner together in Marrakesh. Carter knew of the role I had played in his reelection campaign before the American Jewish community and evidently felt compelled to ask me the following question: "Marc, can you please explain to me why did our Jewish friends turn against me in 1980 after what we had achieved at Camp David?"
Carter's inquiry caught me off guard. Although I had reflected on my years in the White House in anticipation of his visit to Morocco, I frankly did not expect him to tread into the troubled waters of his relationship with Israel and the Jewish community way back when
Being as diplomatic as I could with my former boss, I explained to him that the American Jewish community was not monolithic in its views. But I reproached him for inducing unnecessary acrimony in Israel and across America's Jewish community by seemingly preoccupying himself with the plight of the Palestinian people as if they were the only victims in a conflict where there was more than enough blame to go around on each side.
I urged Carter then to understand that he could make his peace with America's Jews and Israel by having a deeper appreciation of the resentment he engenders when his advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people seems to be at Israel's expense and to make more of an effort to take into account the terrorism that Palestinians had inflicted on Israel.
Unfortunately, Carter failed to heed the advice I offered him in Marrakesh that evening.
When he subsequently entitled his book Palestine, Between Peace and Apartheid, he ignited a firestorm of criticism. Here again, Carter had provocatively and, I believe intentionally, reopened an unhealed wound in his troubled relationship with Israel and America's Jews. The book's unwarranted and one-sided attacks on Israel only served to further alienate Carter as a responsible and even-handed peacemaker.
For a man who in recent public appearances seems troubled, if not subconsciously resentful, about the hostility he had garnered from his book, Carter's outreach to Hamas represents yet another unfortunate indulgence in what appears to be an open, hostile campaign by a former president against Israel.
Carter knows and could have done more to prevent this from happening.
Carter could have conditioned his Hamas Cairo and Damascus meetings with a pre-negotiated commitment to receive something tangible in return, such as a ceasefire by Hamas against further missile attacks against Israel, or a release by Hamas of Israeli soldiers it is holding captive.
Instead, as soon as his Cairo meeting was over with, Hamas issued a one-sided statement exclaiming that by his mere meeting with the delegation, Carter validated Hamas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
It may have been that in 1978 Carter was ahead of his time. In 2008, I am afraid Carter is lost in time. He has failed to face the cold reality of a Middle East that has dramatically changed since his presidency.
Unlike the secular Palestinian Authority that has embraced a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, Hamas craves legitimacy in support of its goal of destroying the Jewish state of Israel. Treading into the quicksand of negotiating unilaterally with Hamas without something in return may be controversial, but not necessarily productive for the cause of peace.
It is one thing for Americans to expect more from Israel in its dealing with the secular Palestinian Authority, it is entirely another to expect Israel to be mesmerized by Carter's outreach to an organization that even through his powers of persuasion will never alter its stated mission to use "legitimate resistance" (read terrorism) to destroy Israel. Let the Israelis decide for themselves whether or not to negotiate with Hamas, as many in Israel advocate on terms that demand concessions from that group.
In its current incarnation and objectives, Hamas is part of the problem, not part of the solution to Middle East peace. The sooner Carter comes to understand this, the better for all concerned, including the very Palestinians he claims to be trying to help.
Here in Egypt, Hamas is also viewed with increasing trepidation as an organization that threatens regional stability and the very peace treaty that Carter mid-wifed at Camp David between Israel and Egypt.
How tragically ironic, that 30 years since Camp David, Carter's self-indulgent and one-sided embrace of Hamas may inadvertently serve to undermine the very crowning achievement of his lifetime.