Jimmy Carter, Hamas and the Obama administration

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Over at Foreign Policy, the diligent Laura Rozen has an interesting blog item on Barack Obama’s Jimmy Carter problem.

Rozen cites a Fox News report that the former president will press the administration to take Hamas off the U.S. terrorist list; whether or not the report is true, it’s not news this administration wants to hear as it walks multiple tightropes in its intensifying Middle East diplomacy.

Although the chances of the administration actually listening to the former president on the Hamas question appear somewhere around zero, Carter’s latest Middle East tour poses a diplomatic problem for the administration as it tries to nudge a weak, vacillating Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a politically precarious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the peace table. Throwing Hamas into the mix at this juncture can only make both leaders more jittery.

And Carter’s freelance diplomacy is a political problem, as well;  Republicans and pro-Israel hawks are cranking up their efforts to portray the President as anti-Israel, using his recent Cairo speech to the Islamic world and his administration’s unwavering demands for a complete settlement freeze as evidence, and there’s nothing they like better than to tar the current president with the sins of the former one.

So far, there’s little indication Obama’s overwhelming support in the Jewish community is slipping, but it’s pretty obvious pro-Israel leaders – either because they disagree with his policies or because they simply fear new U.S.-Israel conflict – are getting nervous as the administration holds fast on the question of a total settlements freeze, criticizes Israel’s closure of Gaza and continues reaching out to the Islamic and Arab worlds.

Carter, widely seen as a bitter anti-Israel partisan, only stokes those fears – even though he has nothing to do with the current administration.

I’m guessing that this administration is sophisticated enough in its grasp of Jewish politics to understand our red lines.

Squeezing on settlements may be unpopular with the leadership and with the activist core, but it’s not a hot button issue for the Jewish majority since support for settlements is thin, at best.

But any softening on Hamas, without the group meeting the international Quartet’s conditions –  renouncing terrorism, recognizing Israel and agreeing to abide by prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements – would be a different matter, and would likely generate significant opposition.

More than any of its predecessors, it seems to me, this administration understands the sizable gap between the pro-Israel leadership and the Jewish electorate at large – which may be the reason so many leaders are worried. But administration officials also know that they could push the leadership and the rank and file closer together with actions seen as real threats by that broader majority – such as making nice to Hamas before the group changes its stripes.

The administration has a lot of latitude for maneuver with the Jewish community – but it’s not unlimited.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.