If former President Jimmy Carter's weekend talks with Hamas did anything, they served as a reminder of how little has been accomplished since President Bush said one of his top priorities this year was achieving a comprehensive Mideast peace agreement.
Unfortunately, Carter himself failed to move the process along much even though Hamas said Tuesday that it is willing to accept a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.
"I think he is a frustrated ex-president who still wants to be at the center of affairs, and this is what drives him,'' says Efraim Inbar, a political scientist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "I don't think his meeting will have any positive effect on the situation in the Middle East.''
Carter's visit with top Hamas leaders angered Israel and the U.S. government, both of which consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Carter had been warned against the meeting because U.S. and Israeli policy is to deal only with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, based in the West Bank.
But the limitations of that policy have been painfully clear since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip last summer and Israel tried to seal off the area. Using advanced weapons smuggled in from Egypt, members of Hamas and other militant groups have repeatedly attacked southern Israeli cities, killing or injuring dozens and terrifying thousands.
In several hours of talks in Syria, where Hamas' leadership is based, Carter won virtually no concessions from the group. Leaders again said they were willing to live next to Israel under a long-term truce, but stressed they would never officially recognize its existence.
On Tuesday, a Hamas spokesman said the organization was prepared for a partial truce that would include just Gaza and not the West Bank, as Hamas previously demanded. Israel has balked at any move that would give Hamas influence over the largely quiet, Fatah-controlled West Bank.
Though Hamas' apparent softening of position followed Carter's visit, experts say the former president can't claim much credit.
"I think there are some negotiations going on indirectly between Israel and Hamas, mostly through Egypt,'' says Ephraim Kam, a former intelligence officer for the Israel Defense Forces and now a professor at Tel Aviv University.
"If there is any agreement it will be mostly a cease-fire and a limited one at that. I don't think we are even close to a complete peace agreement.''
Although Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for promoting social and economic justice, his freelance diplomacy in North Korea, Cuba and elsewhere has sparked controversy and sometimes put him at odds with official U.S. policy. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times after the publication of his most recent book, Beyond the White House, he said he doesn't inject himself into "sensitive areas'' without administration approval.
Carter is especially unpopular in Israel because of what are perceived to be his strong pro-Palestinian views. He drew heavy criticism from U.S. and Israeli Jews with his 2007 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in which he wrote that Israel's "control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles'' to peace.
"I think all Israeli political circles understand that if Hamas needs a good conduit to Israel, they have better candidates such as Egypt or even the Jordanians rather than Carter, who evokes antagonism,'' says Inbar of Bar-Ilan University.
Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, swept to power in 2006 in what even critics acknowledge was one of the fairest and most honest elections ever held in the Mideast. But the United States and European Union cut off direct funding to the new Hamas government because of its hard-line stance against Israel, instead backing the Fatah Party in an ultimately violent power struggle.
Though many Palestinians oppose Hamas' militancy, they still resent Western attempts to undermine a democratically elected government.
"You could argue that the level of support Hamas still enjoys is surprising given the misery in Gaza,'' says Robert Lowe, manager of the Middle East Program at London's Chatham House. "But they don't blame Hamas as much as they may blame Israel, they may blame Fatah, they may blame the international community. They see Hamas' struggle as legitimate.''
Meanwhile, except in areas subject to Hamas' rocket fire, most Israelis have enjoyed months of relative quiet due in large part to the massive security barrier that has almost eliminated terror attacks. While that has made Israel safer, it has also reduced some of the impetus for a permanent peace agreement that would require tough Israeli concessions on settlements, Jerusalem and other issues.
"Especially since the restrictions on Palestinians working in Israel, interaction has been sharply reduced so the two peoples are in greater separation,'' Lowe says. "My sense is that most Israelis just prefer or choose to ignore the conflict.''
The bottom line: Jimmy Carter, like the presidents who followed him, undoubtedly knows there is only so much outsiders can to do bring peace.
"Hamas has its own agenda,'' Inbar says, "and this agenda is not influenced by visits by Carter.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]