October 29, 2023
Summary: A fifteen-year mindset to embrace Hamas as a viable and legitimate political player evolved from former president Jimmy Carter and from half a dozen other notable individuals– scholars, writers, think tank analysts, and former American and European diplomats.. Their belief was that Hamas would come around to negotiate with Israel and that Israel should, in turn, negotiate with Hamas. The unanswered question is: What impact did those regular verbal endorsements and physical embrace of Hamas have upon its sacred mission to destroy Israel?
Overview of President Jimmy Carter’s embrace of Hamas
Though he tried feverishly, President Jimmy Carter failed during his presidency to have the PLO, led by Yasir Arafat, join his effort to achieve a comprehensive peace. The PLO recognized Israel in 1993, causing Hamas to vehemently oppose Arafat and the PLO; any recognition of Israel was and remains in total opposition to Hamas’s ideological principles, that mandate killing Jews. As an Emory faculty member and Middle East Fellow of the Carter Center from 1982 onward, I personally reminded the former president of Hamas’s hateful objectives vis-a-vis Israel. I showed Carter the remarks made by Hamas founder Shakyh Yasin reiterating the organization’s opposition to any Jewish presence in the land west of the Jordan River. Carter did not understand until after the last of our three trips together to the Middle East (March 1990) that the slogan “end the occupation” did not merely refer to Israel’s presence in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Gaza Strip, and parts of Jerusalem but rather to all of what was geographic Israel, both before and after the June 1967 War. One of Carter’s first meetings with Hamas’s leaders appears to have taken place during the January 1996 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, at which I served n as an election monitor. Before Arafat’s death in 2004, Carter pivoted to embrace Hamas’s leaders, realizing Arafat’s influence on the Palestinian future was diminishing. In 2003, he sought to legitimize Hamas as a voice for the Palestinians, fully realizing that it was a direct political competitor to the PLO and to the Palestinian Authority (PA) established under the 1993 Oslo Accords. Carter wanted to bring the two most prominent segments of the Palestinian political community together to form a unified entity forcing negotiations with Israel. For their part, PA and PLO leaders in the early 2000s criticized Carter for his international embrace of Hamas. Nevertheless, for more than ten years he championed hamas. He remained unwilling to consider that its violent outlook could be navigated with logic and reason.
Before embracing Hamas, Carter had asserted that the organization was a terrorist group, but by 2007 he had repudiated this view.. Hamas’s successes in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections persuaded Carter that Hamas was a legitimate voice for the Palestinian people, and as elected officials, its hardline views vis-a-vis Israel would be tempered. Carter ignored Hamas’s anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic record–its 1988 Charter, the myriad terrorist acts it unleashed against Israelis, and its leaders’ incitement against Israelis. Following Carter’s four April 2008 meetings with Hamas leaders in Ramallah, Cairo, and Damascus, Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar said, “Carter’s tour of the region and his meetings with Hamas can now be interpreted as a sign that Hamas is now a key player in regional equations – something that cannot be easily taken for granted.” (Al alam, April 20, 2008). To what degree Carter’s endorsements emboldened Hamas to continue on its violent path toward Israel remains unclear. Did Carter understand or care about the implications of his actions? That remains unclear too, but likely his motivations stretched from thinking he was doing good, to being misguided, to malevolent to intentioned or some of all of these.
For context, it must be stated that other internationally recognized government officials, former diplomats, writers, analysts, scholars, and others also embraced the idea that Hamas was indeed a viable and legitimate political entity; like Carter, they dismissed Hamas’s protracted violence against Israelis insisting instead that it was high time for Hamas to embrace negotiations with Israel and for Israel to negotiate with Hamas.
Jimmy Carter’s Decade of Embracing Hamas: Key Context and Evidence
Ken Stein, October 27, 2023
Note: the chronology added below is for context and is not meant to be exhaustive)
1988 Hamas Issues Charterseeking Israel’s demise
November 3, 2003 – Jimmy Carter “Current U.S.-Israeli strategies must change. Demanding an end to all terrorism before final negotiations only guarantees they (the negotiations will) never happen. Such extremist groups as Hamas do not want a negotiated settlement and are out of the Palestinian Authority’s control.” Jimmy Carter, “Middle East Accord Offers Best Chance for Peace.” USA Today. Jimmy Carter. https://www.cartercenter.org/news/documents/doc1525.html
January 25, 2006 – Hamas wins plurality of seats for the Palestinian Legislative Council
February 20, 2006 – Jimmy Carter and Wolf Blitzer (Situation Room, CNN): “So your basic point is that you’re still leaving out the hope that Hamas will change, will accept the conditions, renounce terrorism, accept Israel’s right to exist. Is that right?
Carter: That’s my hope. I can’t say that’s my expectation, yet. But it’s certainly a possibility. I’ve seen it happen in the past.” And of course, the dream of some ridiculous Hamas leaders and other countries to take over Israel is obviously fallacious and incomprehensible. So, I think what’s going to happen now is that the more pragmatic leaders of Hamas, including Haniyeh, who is the new prime minister, I think will prevail and the Palestinian people will prevail. “The Situation Room: Interview with Jimmy Carter.” CNN. Wolf Blitzer with Jimmy Carter. https://transcripts.cnn.com/show/sitroom/date/2006-02-20/segment/01
March 1, 2006 — Jimmy Carter “My hope is that there will be a moderate position in Hamas in the future. I don’t have any way to think that it will. I’m not naive about that. And I don’t think that they are going to disavow their long-term commitments, which the PLO never did until Oslo, that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories. My guess is that the best we could ever hope for in Hamas or other organizations of that kind is to adopt the proposal that is shared unanimously by the Arab nations, promulgated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, approved at the Fez Summit, and also endorsed by President Bush, which I quoted, and that is that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace of a permanent nature. I don’t see that as at all likely. But the road map calls for the border of Israel to be modified by good faith talks between the two.” Jimmy Carter, Council of Foreign Relations, March 1, 2006.
September 18, 2006 Mahmoud al-Zahar. “Hamas rejects this [the Arab Peace Initiative] because it means recognition of Israel.” Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of Hamas, al-Ayyam, September 18, 2006.
November 2006—Jimmy Carter in his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, (PPNA), Simon and Schuster, 2006. Carter omits in his book PPNA that Hamas believes all of Palestine belongs to the Muslims, and a Jewish state has no right to exist in any part of it.
November 2006 – Jimmy Carter in his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, (PPNA), lied by telling the reader that Hamas is not responsible for any terrorist acts since August 2004 (Page 184). Does Carter believe that the more than 350 Israelis killed at the hands of Hamas before that date do not count? He also absolves Hamas of responsibility for firing Qassam rockets into Israel.
November 2006 —Jimmy Carter in his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, (PPNA), does not tell the reader that the United States, its Western allies, and Palestinian and other Arab writers condemn Hamas for not renouncing terrorism, for not accepting a two-state solution and for not recognizing previous Palestinian agreements with Israel. He claims that Hamas is a supporter of a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which is false; Hamas cannot accept it because it calls for a two-state solution.” See Mahmoud Zahar’s comment above (September 18, 2006)
February 2, 2007 – Jimmy Carter at Emory University “HAMAS, an organization that I know, but I’m not supporting them, have announced in 2004, that they would stop all acts of terrorism – I think they were referring primarily to suicide bombers. They used to take credit for that, and now they disavow it. And the level of terrorist acts against Israelis has dropped dramatically since that time.
May 3, 2007 — Jimmy Carter at UC Irvine Asked if Israel and the U.S. should recognize and negotiate with a Hamas-led Palestinian government: “Yes, I think they (Israel and the U.S.) should. No need for Israel to negotiate with Hamas, but to negotiate with the Unity government that comprises all the citizens of the occupied territories that have been formed as a result of an honest and free and open election.” https://www.socsci.uci.edu/files/announcements/carter/selected_questions.htm
June 7, 2007 — Hamas wins a brief but bloody civil war against the Palestinian Authority rule in the Gaza Strip and ousts all Fatah officials. On June 14, President Mahmoud Abbas dismisses the unity government, led by Ismail Haniyeh, and declares a state of emergency.
April 16, 2008 – Senator Obama on Carter’s meeting with Hamas Obama says that he has an “unshakable commitment” to help protect Israel from “bitter enemies. That’s why I have a fundamental difference with President Carter and disagree with his decision to meet with Hamas. We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction. We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements.” And “Hamas is not a state. Hamas is a terrorist organization.” Ellen Wulfhorst, “Obama criticizes es-President Carter’s Hamas meeting, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-mideast-obama-idUSN1636948020080416
April 18, 2008 – Defying State Department, Israeli, and Congressional pleas, Carter meets with the exiled leader of Hamas in Damascus in a session closed to reporters.” Robert F. Worth, “Defying State Department, Carter Meets Hamas Leader,” New York Times, Apr. 19, 2008.
April 20, 2008 – “Jimmy Carter acknowledged that Hamas still refused to renounce violence, to recognize explicitly Israel’s right to exist, or to recognize previous peace accords. The movement refused to speed up the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli corporal captured two years ago, though it did tell Carter it would let the soldier write a new letter to his parents to prove he was still alive. “While Carter condemned attacks by Hamas as ‘despicable’ and ‘acts of terrorism’ in his speech yesterday, he sounded encouraged by his talks, which included meetings with the most powerful Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, and its exiled head, Khaled Mishaal.” Rory McCarthy, “Hamas accepts two-state-idea, says Carter,” The Guardian, April 21, 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/apr/22/israelandthepalestinians.usa
April 22, 2008 – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims that Jimmy Carter’s Middle East trip and meetings with Hamas were not helpful and that U.S. had not given Carter the “green or even amber light” to speak with Hamas. A Carter spokesperson claimed that Carter had met with Hamas officials in both 1996 and 2006 prior to this most recent trip. Steven R. Weisman and Robert F. Worth, “Administration Disavows Carter’s Trip,” New York Times, April 23, 2008.
April 23, 2008 – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bush II Administration disavows Jimmy Carter’s trip Condoleezza Rice: “We counseled President Carter against going to the region and particularly against having contacts with Hamas…wanted to make sure there would be no confusion and there would be no sense that Hamas was somehow a party to peace negotiations.” “On Monday Mr. Carter said in Israel that he had obtained a significant concession regarding negotiations over a future Palestinian state, declaring that Hamas leaders said they would respect the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza if it were ratified by a referendum of all Palestinians. But Israeli officials said that was no concession, in that Hamas subsequently said it would not recognize Israel and would insist on a right of Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homes, effectively ending Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.” Steven Weisman and Robert Worth, “Administration disavow Carter’s Trip,” NYT, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/washington/23diplo.html
May 12, 2008 – During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama distances himself from Jimmy Carter and rebukes him for reaching out to Hamas by saying that the U.S. cannot negotiate with a terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction. Larry Rohter, “Confronting Questions, Obama Assures Jews of His Support,” New York Times, May 13, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/us/politics/13obama.html
February 12, 2009 — Jimmy Carter interview published in Haaretz “…there’s got to be some reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. And that can go forward, I believe, if the United States and Israel would give it our tacit support, our strong support, Hamas would accept any agreement negotiated between [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen and Israeli authorities if it was submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum and got a positive vote, I think it’s absolutely important that Hamas be involved in any sort of peace process. https://www.haaretz.com/2009-02-12/ty-article/jimmy-carter-include-hamas-in-israel-palestinian-peace-talks/0000017f-db82-d3a5-af7f-fbae98c90000
June 17, 2009 — Jimmy Carter and Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyah hold joint press conference—actual quote in italics “Hamas welcomed Mr. Carter’s visit as a significant step in its quest for international legitimacy… Hamas leaders have said they will never recognize Israel, and will offer only a long-term truce, not a full-fledged peace treaty, in return for a Palestinian state…Carter said, “that in order to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, ‘first of all Hamas has to be accepted by the international community as a legitimate player in the future, and that is what I am trying to do today.’… Taghreed El-Khodary and Isabel Kershner, “Carter, in Gaza, Urges Hamas to Meet Demands,” New York Times, June 16, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/world/middleeast/17mideast.html
November 5, 2009 – Jimmy Carter supports the “Goldstone Report.” He compares Hamas’s unprovoked attacks against Israel “with rudimentary rockets,” to Israel’s response of “[wreaking] havoc with bombs, missiles, and ground invading forces.” Carter neglects to mention that the “rudimentary rockets” are what precipitated the conflict.: Jimmy Carter, “Goldstone and Gaza,” International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/06/opinion/06iht-edcarter.html
April 23, 2010 — U.S. envoy George Mitchell holds “proximity” talks between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but Hamas rejects any negotiations with Israel.
December 14, 2011-— Ismail Haniyeh, “The principles [of Hamas] are definitive and non-negotiable: Palestine means Palestine in its entirety, from the River to the Sea. There will be no concession of a single inch of the land of Palestine.
May 25, 2012 — Jimmy Carter met with Meshaal in Cairo – “We then had a long session with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and other members of the politburo, who are spending most of their time in Doha, Qatar. They were pleased at the Arab Spring developments, especially in Egypt, (Mohamed Morsi – associated with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has the same origins as Hamas) and hope and expect that Egypt’s new leaders will be more supportive of their cause. They seemed confident that Meshaal will remain as unchallenged Hamas leader and described the recent reconciliation agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in detail. A ‘technocrat’ government (without party affiliation) will be formed with Abbas as president and prime minister, and it will make plans for local, parliamentary, presidential, and PLO elections.” https://www.cartercenter.org/news/trip_reports/egypt-0529.html
November 28-29, 2012 – Hamas Leader Khalid Mishaal, “Palestine, from its river to its sea, from its north to its south, is the land of the Palestinians, their homeland, and their legitimate right.The Zionist project is a racist, hostile, and expansionist project based on murder and terrorism. Hence, it is the enemy of the Palestinian people and nation and poses a real threat to them.” (Presented in Beirut at a conference- see full text here)
August 4, 2014 – In a joint op-ed with Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter says that the key to resolving the 2014 Gaza conflict is world recognition of Hamas. “Concurrently, the United States and EU should recognize that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force. Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise. Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor — one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people — can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons.” Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson, “How to Fix It,” Foreign Policy, Aug. 4, 2014, https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/08/04/how-to-fix-it/
April 21, 2015 – During Jimmy Carter’s visit to Israel, both Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu decline meetings with Carter. Carter calls for an international investigation into Israel’s actions during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge and calls for Hamas to be removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Jodi Rudoren, “Middle East; Israel: Leaders Decline to Meet Carter,” New York Times, Apr. 21, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/21/world/middleeast/israel-leaders-decline-to-meet-carter.html
May 2, 2015 — Regarding Khaled Mashaal, Carter says, “I don’t believe that he’s a terrorist. He’s strongly in favor of the peace process.” And, to Channel 2: “I don’t see that deep commitment on the part of Netanyahu to make concessions which [former prime minister] Menachem Begin did to find peace with his potential enemies.” TOI staff and AFP, “Carter says Hamas leader committed to peace, Netanyahu not,” Times of Israel, May 2, 2015, https://www.timesofisrael.com/carter-says-hamas-leader-committed-to-peace-netanyahu-not/; (2) “Jimmy Carter: Hamas leader favors peace, Netanyahu not committed to 2 states,” JTA, May 2, 2015. https://www.jta.org/2015/05/04/israel/jimmy-carter-hamas-leader-favors-peace-netanyahu-not-committed-to-2-states
Conclusion: A fifteen-year mindset to embrace Hamas as a viable and legitimate political player evolved from former President Jimmy Carter, and from half a dozen other notable individuals, scholars, writers, think tank analysts, former US and European diplomats and scholars. Their belief was that Hamas would come around to negotiate with Israel. And that Israel should, in turn, negotiate with Hamas. The unanswered question is: What impact did those regular verbal endorsements have upon hamas intentions to destroy Israel? And did that embrace have an emboldening impact upon what transpired on October 7, 2023?
Dr. Kenneth Stein is Emory University Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern history and political science, and President of the Center for Israel Education.