Claude Salhani
Middle East Times (Opinion)
April 22, 2008 - 5:44pm

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter started out his latest Middle East trip with dark clouds hanging over him. Both the U.S. administration of George W. Bush and the Israeli government opposed his plans to include a meeting with the Damascus-based leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas.

Although one needs to remain extra cautious until any deal is finalized and the ink on the paper is dry - and even then, there is always the risk of something going wrong - Carter's talks in the Syrian capital seem to have gotten off to a good start.

However, even Carter remained cautious, telling the New York Times in an interview: "I'm not claiming it's a breakthrough. I don't have any control over whether or not Hamas does what they tell me. I just know what they tell me."

For the moment, however, it would seem that the former American president might have just done it again. For the second time in his life Carter has managed to draw the Arabs and Israelis away from the lines of confrontation and toward the negotiating table.

Reports from the Syrian capital Damascus, indicate that Carter may have nudged "important concessions from Hamas." This is according to Hamas sources in Syria who asked not to be identified. In fact, Carter may have gotten more than he initially bargained for with Syria now saying that it, too, is interested in pursuing a full-fledged peace treaty with Israel.

Carter, who traveled to Jerusalem after Damascus where he held a series of talks with the Hamas leadership, said that he had managed to extract a promise from the Islamist group that they would respect the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but on condition that the proposal is ratified by a referendum voted on by the Palestinian people.

However, the question of organizing a vote by referendum might be a tad more complicated than it might sound, given that Hamas wants to include the entire Palestinian diaspora as eligible voters. With roughly 1.8 million Palestinians living in 10 camps in Jordan, 408,000 living in 12 camps in Lebanon, 442,000 in nine camps in Syria and several hundreds of thousands of others scattered throughout the Gulf, Europe and North America, one quickly begins to see the magnitude of the task.

Additionally, Hamas wants to reconcile with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction as part of any future deal.

Each of those two points raised by the Hamas leadership is accompanied by a plethora of stumbling blocks that further complicate the process.

Organizing a referendum in Gaza and the West Bank is already a challenge in and of itself: but now throw in the added task of organizing free elections in 31 refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (not to mention the other countries) and one begins to imagine the scope of the task at hand. For example, who is likely to monitor the balloting in some of the southern Lebanon camps that are controlled by Islamists loyal to al-Qaida?

In an interview after his meeting with the Hamas officials Carter said that he understood the referendum would be limited to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. But Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal indicated that he wanted all Palestinians to be included in the referendum.

Having the refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria vote would complicate matters and slow down the peace process as they would undoubtedly demand the inclusion of their "right of return" to be included. This is a condition Israel will outright reject.

And just how likely is the possibility of a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas?

Perhaps a more realistic outcome of Carter's visit to Damascus might be a peace deal between Syria and Israel. Carter was quoted as saying that Syria believed about 85 percent of the issues between it and Israel were already resolved in prior negotiations. Carter said that Syria "wanted a peace deal as soon as possible."

If Hamas stands by its commitments made to the former president in Damascus over this past weekend it would indeed set a precedent with the Islamist Palestinian group recognizing – de facto – Israel's right to exist.

The downside to any breakthrough achieved by Jimmy Carter is that without the backing of the U.S. government nothing is likely to move forward. And for the moment the Bush administration remains opposed to discussing peace with either Hamas or Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.


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