the carter report

Carter Center, April 19

I want to thank David Kimche and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations for this opportunity to summarize the preliminary findings of the Carter Center delegation’s study mission to the Middle East. During the past eight days, we traveled to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and met with leaders of each nation—from government, business, academia, and civil society. We met with very distinguished leaders in Israel and Palestine, as well as in other countries and learned a great deal from them. We visited the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and a hospital in Ashkelon where we saw Israeli and Palestinian doctors treating patients from Israel and Palestine—a positive sign of what the future could hold if peace is achieved.

We knew that some of our meetings—particularly with Hamas and the Syrian government—would be viewed negatively in some quarters. Our intention was to obtain a clear view of the many sides of the Middle East conflict. We believe that the problem is not that we met them, but that the US and Israeli governments refuse to meet with them. This unwillingness to talk makes peace harder to achieve. In Israel, we visited Sderot and Ashkelon and saw, first hand, the despair and fear due to the barrage of rockets. Aiming these rockets at civilian communities is an act of terrorism, and we urged Hamas to stop. I also visited the Palestinian territories and spoke to families who have lost their loved ones. We met with men and women who have been imprisoned and others who cannot go to work because the wall separates them from home to workplace. This too is unacceptable.

On this sixtieth anniversary of the independence of Israel, I acknowledge a personal sadness that, since Camp David, only one other country in the region—Jordan—recognized Israel. I am glad that President Bush and Secretary Rice have committed themselves to completing a peace agreement by the end of the year. I hope that occurs and that such an agreement will set the stage for wider recognition of Israel, and acceptance of a sovereign Palestinian state. Our talks in Syria have led us to conclude that peace with Israel could be within reach, and Syria could be the next country to recognize Israel if an agreement can be reached between them. Allow us to offer some tentative conclusions based on our many meetings.

  • Public Opinion : Despair. Both Israelis and Palestinians share the view that the peace negotiations are not making progress and are unlikely to succeed. Palestinians are convinced that the Israeli government is delaying negotiations because it is focused on interests in expanding settlements than in making peace. When hope for peace declines, and frustration increases, some people begin to turn to violence as the only path, and some of the public opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza suggest this is happening.
  • The State of Peace Talks and the Roadmap. Four levels of talks are occurring: (a) between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert on final status issues; (b) between Ahmed Qurai and Tzipi Livni on the same issues, though in more detail; (c) between technical teams on both sides; and (d) between Prime Minister Fayyad, Minister Ehud Barak, and General Fraser on monitoring the roadmap. President Abbas recently acknowledged the lack of progress on the major status issues, and, without concrete progress at that level, there is a legitimate question as to whether work at the next two levels can be productive. Minister Barak did not even attend the recent session to review the roadmap. One possible reason is that he had nothing positive to report. Indeed, not only does there appear to be no progress on the final status issues, but there is regression on the roadmap. Since Annapolis, more settlements have been announced and are being expanded or built; more roadblocks and checkpoints have gone up; and Gaza is isolated like a prison. On the Palestinian side, according to General Dayton, there has been progress in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority in the training of security forces. But the impression of no progress on final status issues, combined with the expansion of settlements and roadblocks, have left the Palestinians increasingly angry.
  • Palestinian Desperation. Palestinians within the government and outside expressed deep frustration. In a meeting we had with young leaders in the West Bank, several mentioned a “third intifada,” based on the feeling that peace is not possible, and the facts on the ground are growing worse. They did not defend the position taken by some of their friends on the need for violence, but they understand it. The danger is that most Israelis seem unaware of these views.
  • Five Interlocking Conflicts. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict lies at the center of other crises or challenges in the Middle East: intra-Palestinian; Syria-Israel; Lebanon; and Iran’s growing influence. While each crisis needs to be addressed on its own; none of these crises can be solved without addressing or, at least, taking account of the others.
  • Comprehensive Peace. For peace in the Middle East to be sustainable, it needs to be comprehensive. This means that one needs to relate each crisis to the other, but it also means that actors with a stake in the conflict need to have a stake in the solution. Groups such as Hamas view themselves as seeking liberation, but their role is viewed by some as using terrorism to undermine the prospects for peace. Syria, which we believe is ready to negotiate peace with Israel and normal relations with the US, should also be permitted a place in the overall peace process lest they seek to subvert it.
  • Neighbors. All of Israel’s neighbors believe they have much at stake in the success of the negotiations. Egypt is mediating between Hamas and Israel, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan have played key roles in assisting the peace process. And yet all are deeply worried that the negotiations will not succeed, and the effect on the region will be devastating. In our meeting, King Abdullah II of Jordan stressed the absence of tangible progress in the ongoing peace negotiations, and the need for stopping the expansion of settlements.
  • We did not come as mediators or negotiators, and have no interest in interfering in the principal peace negotiations. But we did think there might be a role in listening closely to two key actors—Hamas and the Syrian Government—and offering ideas on ways that they could take a more productive road to peace. Our conclusion is that there are good reasons to believe that such a strategy can yield constructive involvement by them, but it will take considerable time and patience. Let me focus my remarks on the two most controversial sets of meetings.

    Hamas

    I understand why Israel and other governments are reluctant to engage Hamas. They have not agreed to recognize Israel; they have not renounced violence; and they do not accept previous peace agreements. In our judgment, Hamas should accept all three points, but we do not believe peace is likely, and we are certain peace is not sustainable, unless a way can be found to ensure that Hamas will not disrupt the peace negotiations. The current strategy of isolating and suppressing Hamas is not working. It only exacerbates the cycle of violence. Some feel that my meeting with Hamas legitimized them, but a plurality of the Palestinian people voted for them in the 2006 elections, which I observed, and a poll of Israeli citizens indicates strong support for Israel-Hamas talks. We have no illusions that one meeting will stop the violence or produce peace, but we need to take that first step. It is clear from our conversations that their views, as well as those of Israelis, need to be tested by regular exchanges, such as occurred in the many years of Track II diplomacy with the PLO. Violence freezes adversaries in a counterproductive posture. Israelis think the Palestinians will never accept Israel, and Palestinians believe that Israel will never accept a genuinely independent Palestine. We think both are wrong, and trust Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to find their path to a two-state solution.

    I met with Hamas leaders from the West Bank, Gaza, and Damascus. They said that they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, if approved by Palestinians—a departure from long-standing Hamas doctrine that refused to recognize two states. So this is one change. Specifically, they agreed to the following :

    If President Abbas succeeds in negotiating a final status agreement with Israel, Hamas will accept the decision made by the Palestinian people and their will through a referendum monitored by international observers, including those from the Carter Center, or by a newly elected Palestinian National Council by mechanisms agreed upon nationally, even if Hamas is opposed to the agreement. In order to ensure that the referendum can be debated and the choice by voters truly reflects the will of the Palestinian people, a national reconciliation and, in particular, between Fatah and Hamas will be necessary.

    Let me underscore the significance of the statement. It means that Hamas will not undermine Abbas’ efforts to negotiate the agreement, and whatever position Hamas chooses to take on the agreement, Hamas will accept an agreement if the Palestinian people support it by a free vote. If the agreement calls for a two-state solution and the recognition of Israel and Palestine, Hamas will, in effect, recognize Israel, if the people agree on the plan. Hamas leaders said they did not want violence, but they believed it was necessary to end the occupation. However, they did say they would consider alternative strategies, including non-violence, to achieve their goal of a sovereign Palestinian state. In our meetings with Hamas, we made the following additional points:

  • We pressed them hard on a cease-fire. They are negotiating with Egypt, and we urged them to move rapidly to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.
  • We proposed a rapid exchange of prisoners, involving the early transfer of Corporal Shalit to Egypt in exchange for a group of prisoners not guilty of serious crimes, including all the women and children. Hamas considered their negotiations through Egypt to be well advanced and including prisoners whose families had been promised a high priority on their list to be swapped. Mr. Meshaal promised a new letter from Shalit to his parents, to be delivered through the Carter Center.
  • We received an affirmation from Hamas that a peace agreement negotiated between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert will be accepted if submitted and approved (a) to the Palestinian people in a referendum to be monitored by the Carter Center and other international observers or (b) to a newly elected Palestine National Council. In any case, a national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will be necessary.
  • Hamas urged that the border crossing at Rafah be reopened. The crossing would be monitored by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the European Union, and Egypt. Final decisions would be made by Egyptian officials.
  • Hamas is prepared to negotiate an agreement with President Abbas to create a government of national consensus, with a unified professional security force for the West Bank and Gaza. There would be a cabinet composed of technocrats belonging neither to Fatah or Hamas, but approved by both. This non-partisan group would govern at least until the scheduled elections in 2010.
  • The leaders of Hamas expressed their greatest concern with the terrible suffering of the Palestinian people and reiterated that the basis for peace would be the fulfillment of their national right of self-determination and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.
  • Syria

    Communications between Israel and the US with Syria has been minimal, and relations have been strained when not hostile. The US and Israel view Syria as a supporter of terrorism through its cooperation with Iran and its funding and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Furthermore, the two governments view Syria as undermining the stability of Lebanon and the selection of a President. In our conversations, the Syrian government seemed determined to change. Senior government officials pledged to complete an agreement on the Golan Heights and peace with Israel as soon as possible. The government took very seriously the recent comment by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he understood Syrian expectations, and he thought Syria understood Israeli expectations. Since the Syrian government considers that about 85% of the issues have been resolved in prior negotiations, it believes the agreement should be completed soon. In Syria’s view, there has been agreement on the borders, riparian rights as they apply to the Sea of Gallilee, security zones and the presence of international forces. The US has three options. It can oppose such talks, and that will make it impossible to achieve peace. It can play a neutral role, but that won’t be enough. Finally, the US could play a positive and constructive role, as proposed by the Syrian government, and we hope it does. On Lebanon, Syria insists that it is no longer playing a large role as it did when it had troops there, and that the key to the solution is a national dialogue in which the various parties reach a consensus. In effect, this means that on critical issues (constitutional, economic policy, security), the government should obtain the agreement of Hezbollah.

    In brief, Syria has influence over four of the conflicts that we have been discussing: Syria-Israel; Israel-Palestine; Intra-Palestine; and Lebanon. A successful negotiation on each will have positive effects on the other, and conversely, failure to reach agreement on one would make it harder to solve problems tomorrow. If there is an agreement between Israel and Palestine and reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, then there is no longer any need for Syria to help Hamas; and if there is a consensus on Lebanon, there is no need to support Hezbollah. And finally, if the US decides to support the negotiations with Israel, then US concerns with Syria’s performance will be addressed. In Syria, we raised our concerns about the people imprisoned for signing the Damascus Declaration, and President Bashar al-Assad said that there were only 7 left from the original 90 detained. He said that if they sought clemency, they would receive it. We also asked him about Guy Hever, the young Israeli soldier who has been missing since August 1997, and he said they had no evidence of his whereabouts. We asked about Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were captured by Hezbollah at the beginning of the war. The Syrian government has no information on them.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, we agree with President Abbas’ recent statement that the final status negotiations are moving so slowly, with so few obvious results, that it is very unlikely negotiations will be completed by the deadline at the end of the year. This conclusion is widely shared, and may prove to be tragic. The combination of little or no progress on final status issues and a regression on the roadmap issues—settlements, checkpoints, etc.—and the closure of Gaza—all this means that the frustration level among Palestinians may be reaching the boiling point. Therefore, it is essential that we find an alternative and that includes a ceasefire, exchange of prisoners, negotiations between Israel and Syria and some rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas. No important achievement has ever occurred in the Middle East without taking a risk. I hope the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the US government are prepared to take risks for peace. The transformation of Israel in sixty years is truly a miracle to behold. The next miracle for which we should all pray is the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state that will live in peace with Israel and will cooperate with all their neighbors for the future of the region and its children.

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