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Carter Adds Weight to Shuttle Diplomacy Push June 19, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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WASHINGTON, Jun 19 (IPS) – Pres. Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and peace envoy Sen. George Mitchell have been moving steadily ahead with the campaign Obama launched on his first day in the White House, to broker a comprehensive and sustainable Arab-Israeli peace.

They have been supported in this effort by another quiet but very effective envoy, too: former Pres. Jimmy Carter. Carter, like Mitchell, has just returned from an intensive fact-finding tour of the Arab-Israeli region.

IPS has learned that on Thursday, Carter briefed Mitchell on his findings.

Unlike Mitchell, Carter visited Gaza on this trip. While there he decried the extensive damage that he saw, that was inflicted by Israel during the war of last December-January.

He met Hamas leaders in Gaza, the West Bank, and Syria, and while in Israel he met the Israeli security cabinet and prominent settler leader Shaul Goldstein.

At the official level, this week Sec. Clinton held notably firm on Washington’s demand that Israel cease all settlement construction in the occupied territories, roundly rejecting suggestions from Israeli officials that there should be an exception that could allow for what the Israelis describe as “natural growth”.

News also emerged Thursday that in late May, the Obama administration sent a firm and formal “diplomatic note” to Israel protesting the tight siege it has maintained on Gaza’s 1.5 million people and demanding that Israel allow considerably more goods into Gaza than at present.

A reporter for Israel’s Haaretz daily wrote that the U.S. note demanded that Israel allow more food, medicine and cash into Gaza, along with the basic construction materials that are urgently needed to rebuild the thousands of homes and other structures destroyed and damaged during the recent war.

Washington’s campaign against Israeli settlement construction has been firm and clear for some months now – though critics have noted that this rhetorical firmness has not yet been accompanied by the introduction of any new policy measures to hold Israel actually accountable on this issue.

By adding the Gaza situation to its list of firmly expressed concerns in late May, Washington seemed to be moving closer to a large-scale showdown with Tel Aviv on peace-related questions.

One former high-level official who has pushed for many years for bold U.S. action on Arab-Israeli peace told IPS recently that he wished Obama had been faster, and gone further, in tackling the “big” challenge of brokering final peace agreements between Israel and the three Arab neighbours with whom it still needs one – the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon.

But this source, speaking on deep background, said it was his understanding that Obama had judged that a “slow and steady” approach was better.

“Indeed,” he noted, “the good backing the president enjoys in this country for his Arab-Israel policy seems to be holding steady, and even, quite possibly, increasing. So maybe his strategy is working well, after all.”

Jimmy Carter has also worked tirelessly – for decades – for Arab-Israeli peace. On Wednesday, the 84-year-old former president wrapped up a grueling two-week tour that took him to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

One day after his return he had his meeting with senior administration officials here in Washington. That event underlined the change in Carter’s relevance and status in the Obama era. The visits he made to the Middle East while George W. Bush was president were barely tolerated by the administration, which kept him at arm’s length.

While in Lebanon on the latest trip, Carter headed a team of 60 monitors sent by the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, which he founded and still heads, to monitor the country’s Jun. 7 elections.

Carter Centre senior adviser Robert Pastor told IPS that the monitoring mission and the elections both went well. “If all the parties accept the outcome of an election, that makes it successful,” he said, noting that that was the case in Lebanon.

Pastor noted that the election-monitoring mission in Lebanon was relevant to broader peace issues. He said he had met with leaders of the country’s Hezbollah party, which has participated in Lebanese elections since 1992 though it is still on the State Department’s “terrorism list”. (The Hezbollah leaders had, he said, refused to meet with Carter.)

Pastor has designed and headed scores of election-monitoring missions around the world during 25 years with the Carter Centre. He told IPS he is now strongly convinced that Hezbollah “is more interested in participating in the Lebanese political process than in provoking conflict with Israel.”

In Syria, Carter met with President Bashar al-Asad and other officials. Pastor said he judged that those meetings, like the one George Mitchell had with Asad a little later, had been helpful in identifying ways to improve the U.S.’s badly strained relations with Syria.

But it was the meetings that Carter had in Damascus with the overall head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and in Gaza with elected Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyyeh, that were the most controversial items on his itinerary.

Carter had met Meshaal in Damascus at least twice before. And back in January 2006, he headed the mission the Carter Centre sent to monitor the Palestinian parliamentary elections held in the West bank and Gaza.

Those were the first Palestinian elections that Hamas, which like Hezbollah is still on the State Department’s “terrorism list”, participated in. All the teams monitoring the elections determined they had been free and fair, and that Hamas had won.

Israel and the Bush administration responded by refusing to deal with the elected government. Israel – with strong backing from Washington – also imposed a tight siege on Hamas’s Gaza home base from then on.

In April 2008, Carter and Pastor carried important messages between Hamas and Israel that helped to midwife an agreement for a six-month ceasefire between the two sides that went into operation two months later. It remained largely successfully in force until early November, and was not renewed.

Pastor said that during his latest round of visits with Hamas leaders, Carter “pushed them very hard” to find a way to bridge the distance between their stated positions and the requirement the U.S. government still has that Hamas meet three preconditions before Washington will talk to it.

These three preconditions were put in place by the Bush administration, and have been kept in place by Obama. They stipulate that Hamas must recognise Israel, renounce violence, and commit to all the agreements previously endorsed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its offshoot the Palestinian Authority.

“The Hamas leaders are still mulling over Carter’s ideas,” Pastor said.

In a possibly related development, a London paper close to Hamas has revealed that Meshaal will make a big policy speech Jun. 20, in which he will outline a “new strategy”.

In an interview with IPS in Damascus on Jun. 4, Meshaal reiterated Hamas’s desire to be “part of the solution, not part of the problem”. He also restated Hamas’s desire to see the speedy establishment of an independent Palestinian state in all the Palestinian areas occupied by Israel in 1967, and said it would be up to that state to establish the nature of its relationship with Israel.

It is still unclear if there will be a breakthrough in Hamas-U.S. relations any time soon. But Mitchell has now made four visits to the region. With the results of those visits – as well as Pres. Carter’s latest visit – now fully available to them, it is clear the Obama team has some big decisions to make.

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