by James M. Wall
Jimmy Carter’s 10-day trip to the Middle East started in Lebanon, June 7 and ended in Gaza, June 17.
This picture was taken in Gaza, where, among other stops, Carter visited an UNRAW Children’s Center, accompanied by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
At the Center he interacted with children and delivered an address, the text of which is available here in the Palestine Chronicle.
What are we to make of this latest Carter venture into peace-making in the Middle East?
The answer? The American voters wanted change. They got it. George Bush is gone and Barack Obama is the new president.
The Christian Science Monitor reported on the trip, noting, in particular, the change in relations between the region and the US, following the election of Barack Obama:
Mr. Carter has been shunned in the past by both the Bush administration and Israeli leaders, who criticized his efforts to engage the militant Palestinian group that he says is crucial to any lasting Arab-Israeli peace.
But analysts say Carter’s ties with the more like-minded Obama administration, which has taken a firmer stand with Israel on some issues, may bolster his effectiveness as a regional peace broker.
The Monitor interviewed Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general:
There is a big difference between Carter operating under Bush [and] Carter operating under Obama. His efforts had little value during the eight years of the Republicans. They have greater value now. He has access and connections with the leaders of [the] new America.
Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to Mr. Haniyeh, also acknowledged Carter’s ties with Obama and his potential to act as a go-between with the US.
“He is close to President Obama and nobody in his type of position understands the conflict with all its problems like he does,” says Mr. Yousef in a phone interview. “I think he will give Obama the information and analysis he needs to address this conflict in a proper way and to restore the image of America in the region after two decades of failed diplomacy.”
In Lebanon, Carter joined with approximately 60 Carter Center observers from 23 nations to monitor the election. The observor team was led by David Carroll, from the Carter Center.
Former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdulkarim al Eryani was co-chairman, with Carter, of the observor team.
Carter’s personal report of his trip is available on the Carter Center web site. His attention to detail in this era of reduced media space for including details, is valuable.
For example, consider his report on the mechanics and outcome of the election:
702 candidates competed for 128 parliamentary seats in 26 districts. In a “confessional” system more than 65 years old, it was prearranged that seats be divided equally between Christians and Muslims, distributed as follows: Maronite Christians 34; Greek Orthodox 14; Greek Catholic 8; Sunni Muslim 27; Shi’a Muslim 27; Druze 8; Armenian 6; Alawite 2; Protestant 1; other Christians 1.
Two alliances evolved: the March 14 group (Sunnis and others), with Saudi Arabia and U.S. backing, having 70 seats; and the March 8 group (Shi’a and others), with Iran and Syria backing, having 58 seats. Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah), Speaker Nabih Berri (Amal – the original Shi’a political party, now aligned with Hezbollah), and General Michel Aoun led March 8 and Saad Hariri led March 14.
Who won the election and why? Here is Carter’s analysis, which includes his casual acceptance of Hezbollah’s rejection of his presence at a meeting. There are more important matters to concern us, he seems to be saying, than who likes you and who doesn’t like you, at the moment.
Election experts said this could be the first free and fair election since 1972. Before the election, we met with the major political leaders (Hezbollah decided that I should not join our Center’s team that met with them), while our observer teams were deployed in the 26 electoral districts.
On Election Day Rosalynn and I visited 28 polling sites. There were many minor infractions of electoral procedures, but in general it was a good election with the results accepted peacefully by both sides. The previous parliamentary alignment of 55 percent for March 14 and 45 percent for March 8 remained unchanged.
The major deciding factors were local in nature, but a friendlier attitude toward Obama and America may have helped March 14. (Although March 8 fell short of expected gains, it actually increased by one seat over the 2005 election result and received about 100,000 more popular votes.)
From Beruit, Carter traveled to Damascus, Syria, where he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the son of the previous president. Carter first met the younger Assad when he was a college student, during an earlier meeting Carter had with his father.
While in Damascus, Carter also met with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, where, Carter reports, the two men discussed conditions for future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. After his visit to Gaza, Carter told the media:
“I called on Hamas leaders that I met with in Damascus and I told Hamas leaders in Gaza today to accept these conditions,” said Carter to reporters after meeting with Haniyeh for the first time. “They made several statements, and showed readiness to join the peace [process] and move towards establishing a just and independent Palestinian state.”
On his stop in Israel, Carter was finally able to visit the Knesset, where he also met with Israel’s security cabinet. He then met with Shaul Goldstein, a prominent West Bank settler.
Goldstein’s take on Carter, as reported by the Monitor:
“Nobody in his position ever agreed to meet settlers. People won’t meet settlers,” says Mr. Goldstein, who heads the regional council of the Gush Etzion settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“Carter is not the enemy,” he says. “Maybe he’s talking to the enemy. But Carter is not a terrorist, and he’s not part of Hamas. The main goal is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is very important in the future to meet this kind of person.”
Before he went to Gaza, Carter met Saturday with Jerusalem’s Christian leaders at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Old City. At the meeting were officials from the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, and representatives from the World Council of Churches, who were visiting at the time in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem Anglican Bishop Suheil S. Dawani, who participated in a May 14-15 Carter Center conference in Atlanta, “Towards a New Christian Consensus: Peace with Justice in the Holy Land”, had proposed that the meeting with Carter be arranged in Jerusalem
Carter was welcomed to the meeting at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate by His Beatitude Theophilos III, who told the visiting former U.S. president that he felt he spoke for his colleagues when he said,“ we firmly believe, that there now exists the possibility for the conflict and hatred to be turned into a durable and just peace”.
Bishop Dawani spoke briefly and emphasized in his comments that the Christian institutions in Palestine and Israel:
“are a natural grass roots presence. In their non-sectarian services, they promote respect for other people’s convictions, uphold interfaith dialogue and seek communal harmony.”
Canon Ateek commended President Carter for his affirmation of democracy by his presence at national elections in regions of conflict:
In this process of democratization in governance, there needs to be a built-in shared respect for both the political aspirations as well as the religious convictions of minorities in the electorate. This is especially needed where Christians find themselves in sensitive minority placement among the three faiths.
Carter told the Jerusalem and WCC religious leaders that he had met with religious leaders in Lebanon during the recent election there, and that he had a “prayerful hope” for his visit to Gaza. He also expressed his understanding of, and encouragement for, the important role that the historic Christian Community plays in peace initiatives and interfaith harmony.
Two days after this Jerusalem meeting, as he witnessed the destruction and suffering in Gaza, Carter said he was moved almost to tears by the situation there. He promised to bring a report of the destruction he saw to Obama, as well as to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.
Looking for some hopeful signs in the Middle East? Take time to read Carter’s full report and his speech in Gaza (links above), and then reflect a moment on the responses he received in Israel and Gaza, and from the Christian leaders in Jerusalem. This is change we can believe in.
The picture above is from the Palestine Chronicle.