Countering Iran/Jimmy Carter and Hamas

Update from AIJAC

April 18, 2008
Number 04/08 #06

This Update leads with some comment from the Washington Post on the latest revelations about the degree of Iranian involvement in the violence in Iraq. The editorial notes that the testimony of US Commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker about the role of Iranian “special groups” in recent fighting in Iraq only adds to a general profile of Iranian regional aggression, including in Gaza and on the nuclear front.  It draws the conclusion that the US, under both the Bush Administration and whatever successor is elected in November, must actively use a mix of measures to try to counter this Iranian threat. For the full editorial, CLICK HERE. More on the Petraeus/Crocker testimony with respect to the Iranian role in Iraq is here, while it is being reported that US officials now say that Iran, not al-Qaeda, is currently the top threat in Iraq. Additional comment on the implications of the testimony about Iran comes from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Haaretz argues Iran is ‘playing with fire’, and risks provoking military action against itself.

Next, this Update offers two pieces on former US President Jimmy Carter’s plans to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus overnight. First up, Washington Institute for Near East Policy terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, who recently completed a major book on Hamas, says it is a very bad idea because not only will it fail to create progress toward peace given Hamas’ goals and stances, but “it will legitimise the group most violently opposed to such progress.” He also dismantles the argument that Hamas must be engaged because peace is impossible without it, pointing out it is perfectly possible to communicate to Hamas, especially about the criteria for legitimate engagement, without granting it that legitimacy. For Levitt’s complete argument, CLICK HERE. More criticism of Carter’s Hamas moves comes from former Jerusalem Post Editor Bret Stephens, MSNBC military analyst Lt. Col. Rick Francona, Haaretz columnist Shmuel Rosner, former New York Times correspondent Clifford May, and Lebanese editor Michael Young.

Meanwhile, another Washington Post editorial makes the argument against Carter’s audience with Hamas in an original way. It does so by picking apart an article by Hamas representative Mahmoud al-Zahar which the Post published on the same page (and can be read here.) The paper points out that Zahar not only endorses a terrorist “total war” and demands that before talks even begin, Israel must both pull back to the 1967 borders and agree to dismantle itself via a “Palestinian right of return”, but ends with a pledge to fight for generations if necessary to “to redress the material crimes of 1948”, meaning Israel’s existence. For the Post’s complete take on what this says about Carter’s effort, CLICK HERE.

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Countering Iran

Tehran’s ‘special groups’ in Iraq are just one element of a regional threat.   

Washington Post, Sunday, April 13, 2008; Page B06

THREADED through the reports of progress in Iraq by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker last week was the story of a larger failure: the inability of the United States and its allies to contain the growing aggressiveness of Iran. Since Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker last reported to Congress seven months ago, Iranian-backed militias and “special groups” in Iraq have evolved from a shadow force into the largest remaining threat to U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. It was Iranian-supplied rockets that slammed into the Green Zone in recent days and Iranian-trained militants who stiffened the resistance to Iraqi government forces trying to gain control over the southern city of Basra.

The proxy war in Iraq is just one front in a much larger Iranian offensive. Israel has been fighting an on-and-off battle in the Gaza Strip with Hamas cadres that also have been trained and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In Lebanon the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement has paralyzed the government while rebuilding its own massive arsenal, which now includes tens of thousands of missiles. And on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced another major acceleration in the country’s nuclear program. He said 6,000 more centrifuges were being installed at an existing enrichment plant, which would give Iran the capacity to produce the core of a bomb in a matter of months.

The urgency and momentum of the Bush administration’s multilateral diplomatic campaign against Iran drained away following the release in December of a National Intelligence Estimate that misleadingly emphasized Iran’s reported decision to put one part of its nuclear program on hold. Israel’s efforts to stop Hamas’s buildup in Gaza have so far failed, and a United Nations force in Lebanon has never made a serious effort to prevent Hezbollah from reconstituting the military capacity it lost in a 2006 fight with Israel. Negotiations with Iran are on hold: Tehran has repeatedly put off a fourth round of talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Iraq.

What can be done? Mr. Crocker and Gen. Petraeus say that Iraqi leaders and much of the public have been angered by recent Iranian-sponsored attacks such as the rockets fired at the Green Zone, some of which fell in other neighborhoods and killed numerous civilians. Israel is hoping that by forging a peace deal with moderate Palestinian leaders it will wean the population of Gaza away from Hamas. In theory, a popular backlash against Iran’s military adventurism could be nurtured across the Middle East.

It nevertheless is inevitable that Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon will have to be countered in part by military force, while diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at stopping Tehran’s nuclear program is stepped up. Some observers interpreted the report of Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker as calculated to provide yet another excuse for keeping U.S. forces in Iraq. In fact, these two seasoned professionals were pointing at a growing menace that the Bush administration, and its successor, cannot afford to ignore.

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Legitimizing Hamas

Carter’s visit sends the wrong message

by Matthew Levitt

The Weekly Standard
, 04/16/2008 12:00:00 AM

IMAGINE THE ALICE IN Wonderland scene that will take place later this week, when U.S. Secret Service agents entrusted with protecting former president Jimmy Carter stand guard over a meeting with the head of a designated terrorist group responsible for near daily attacks targeting civilians, including numerous attacks in which American citizens have been injured and killed. The former president may have altruistic motives, but his meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Mishal is both imprudent and dangerous.

Last week, Hamas confirmed press reports that Mishal will host Carter in Damascus for a meeting on April 18. Hamas must have taken special pleasure announcing the presidential meeting the same week the State Department issued the latest version of its annual Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. Fifth from the top is Hamas, a charter member of this select group, reinstated every year since the list’s inception in 1995. Carter’s visit sends the message that Hamas need not fret over the designation–he is willing to accept the group as it is, terrorism notwithstanding, and others may well follow.

The former president is not alone in his call for engaging Hamas; his former national security adviser is among the prominent voices advocating the idea. Since Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, the theory goes, it must be brought into the political process, not isolated, or else there is no hope for peace. But Hamas is dead set against a two-state solution, as its refusal to disavow the use of violence makes clear. Whenever negotiators have come close to some type of Israeli-Palestinian agreement Hamas has carried out attacks specifically aimed at derailing progress toward peace. According to declassified U.S. intelligence, cells under Mishal’s supervision “have been implicated in efforts by Hamas to plan large attacks that would undermine the road map peace plan.” Engaging Hamas will not help the peace process; it will legitimize the group most violently opposed to such progress.

Because of its commitment to violence targeting civilians, engaging Hamas in overt diplomacy when the group remains dedicated to the use of violence is unwise, even if well-intentioned. Hamas rains rockets and mortars on Israeli civilians living near the border with Gaza on a daily basis, the group recently carried out a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Dimona, it continues to hold an Israeli soldier captive and recently threatened to kill him, and it lauds the attacks other groups carry out from the Gaza Strip it controls. According to an Israeli report released this week, Hamas is engaged in its most significant arms buildup to date, including some 80 tons of explosives, roadside bombs, and longer range rockets capable of targeting Israeli communities deeper in Israel. Hamas stockpiles most of its weapons in the Gaza Strip, but maintains weapons caches in the West Bank as well, such as the stockpile of 200 kilograms of fertilizer and gunpowder seized in Qalqilya this week.

Indeed, directly engaging Hamas would not only empower a terrorist group designated by the United States and the European Union, it would pull the carpet out from under Palestinian moderates who are truly interested in pursuing peace and are trying to contest support for Hamas through non-violent means. American and European officials alike have shunned Hamas over the group’s continued use of terrorism and political violence, despite the group’s electoral victory in January 2006, united in their shared position that politics and terrorism cannot go hand in hand–elections notwithstanding.

The theory that Hamas is not going to go away and must therefore be directly engaged is similarly flawed. Engaging Hamas without the group having to first commit to non-violence would signal Hamas and likeminded groups from Lebanon to Iraq that they need not moderate their tactics to be recognized by the international community. Last June, Hamas militants aimed their weapons not at Israel but at fellow Palestinians and took over the Gaza Strip by force. The message Carter’s visit sends to violent Islamist groups throughout the region is clear: Terrorism and politics truly go hand in hand; there is no need to forfeit the former to engage in the latter.

Mishal, himself a U.S. designated terrorist, embodies this message, publicly playing the role of Hamas political leader while privately playing a hands-on role in Hamas terrorism. Announcing the August 2003 designation, the Treasury Department noted that some cells in the Hamas military wing based in the West Bank are under Mishal’s control. Mishal, Treasury found, “has been responsible for supervising assassination operations, bombings and the killing of Israeli settlers.” He “maintains a direct link” to Hamas in the Gaza Strip “to execute Hamas military activities.”

This is not to say we can close our eyes and imagine Hamas away. The fact is that communication is not the same as engagement. There are plenty of ways for the United States to communicate with Hamas without openly engaging the group as a legitimate actor. Whether through Egyptian, Palestinian, or other interlocutors, there are multiple ways the U.S. could–and surely does–communicate with Hamas. Bestowing on Hamas in general, and Khaled Mishal in particular, the legitimacy of an audience with a former president of the United States suggests something much more than just a desire to communicate or even engage with Hamas–it suggests a level of acceptance for the organization and its tactic of targeting civilians. No good will come of it.

Matthew Levitt directs the Stein program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of
Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad (Yale 2006) and the forthcoming Negotiating Under Fire: Preserving Peace Talks in the Face of Terror Attacks (Rowman & Littlefield, August 2008).

© Copyright 2008, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved

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Mr. Zahar and Mr. Carter

The former president, on what he says is a road to peace, embraces Hamas terrorists.   

Washington Post, Thursday, April 17, 2008; Page A22

ON THE OPPOSITE page today we publish an article by the “foreign minister” of Hamas, Mahmoud al-Zahar, that drips with hatred for Israel, and with praise for former president Jimmy Carter. We believe Mr. Zahar’s words are worth publishing because they provide some clarity about the group he helps to lead, a group that Mr. Carter contends is worthy of being included in the Middle East peace process. Mr. Carter himself is holding what appears to be a series of meetings with Hamas leaders during a tour of the Middle East. He met one militant in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Tuesday and was reportedly planning to meet Mr. Zahar in Cairo today before traveling to Damascus for an appointment with Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s top leader.

Mr. Zahar lauds Mr. Carter for the “welcome tonic” of saying that no peace process can succeed “unless we are sitting at the negotiating table and without any preconditions.” Yet Mr. Zahar has his own preconditions: Before any peace process can “take even its first tiny step,” he says, Israel must withdraw to the 1967 borders and evacuate Jerusalem while preparing for the “return of millions of refugees.” In fact, as Mr. Zahar makes clear, Hamas is not at all interested in a negotiated peace with the Jewish state, whose existence it refuses to accept: “Our fight to redress the material crimes of 1948 is scarcely begun,” he concludes.

In that fight, no act of terrorism is out of bounds for the Hamas leader, who endorses the group’s recent ambush of Israeli civilians working at a fuel depot that supplies Gaza. The “total war” of which he speaks was initiated and has been sustained by Hamas itself through its deliberate targeting of civilians, such as the residents of the Israeli town of Sderot, who suffer daily rocket attacks.

These facts would hardly need restating were it not for actors such as Mr. Carter, who portray Hamas as rational and reasonable. Hamas is “perfectly willing” for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “to represent them in all direct negotiations with the Israelis, and they also maintain that they will accept any agreement that he brokers with the Israelis” provided a referendum is held on it, the former president told the newspaper Haaretz. Compare that claim with Mr. Zahar’s own words on the opposite page. In fact, Mr. Zahar has called Mr. Abbas “a traitor” for negotiating with Israel — a label that is, in the Palestinian context, an incitement to murder.

Mr. Carter justifies his meetings with familiar arguments about the value of dialogue with enemies. But he misses the point. Contacts between enemies can be useful: Israel is legendary for such negotiations, and even now it is engaged in back-channel bargaining with Hamas through Egypt. But it is one thing to communicate pragmatically, and quite another to publicly and unconditionally grant recognition and political sanction to a leader or a group that advocates terrorism, mass murder or the extinction of another state. That is what Mr. Carter is doing by lending what is left of his prestige to an avowed terrorist such as Khaled Meshal — or Mahmoud al-Zahar.

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