Jimmy Carter holds the trump card when he talks about the need to speak to one's enemies. His advantage is the instinct harbored by most Americans, who reject "the policy of isolating problem countries" and believe "that the United States should be willing to enter into talks with them," as one public-opinion poll put it in December 2006.
In that poll, only 16 favored "pressure," while a whopping 82 percent was "willing to talk." Eighty-four percent of respondents supported the proposition that "communication increases the chance of finding a mutually agreeable solution." So although Carter wants you to think he is working against the odds, calling for talks is, in fact, the easier political position.
It is easier for Barack Obama to explain why he is ready to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than it is for Hillary Clinton to explain why she opposes such a meeting. It is easier for Carter to explain why meeting the leader of Hamas is preferable to "isolating" him. It is easier because no details are necessary. All you have to do is use one of the magic words: engage, communicate, talk. The burden of proof lies with those who oppose engagement. They have to make their case and clarify why they don't want to talk.
Carter met with Hamas leaders last week, and he explained his position in Monday's New York Times. In his op-ed, two reasons emerged for the necessity of such talks, but Carter, misleadingly, turned them into one.
The first is that "Hamas [is] steadily gaining popularity." That's the let's-just-deal-with-reality argument: Hamas is strong, Hamas makes the rules, and we have to talk to the party in power. The second is "there can be no peace with Palestinians divided." That's the what-we're-trying-to-do-here-is-help-make-peace argument. Presumably, Carter is not in the business of sabotaging the peace talks being conducted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or undermining his efforts to rebuild a moderate, democratic Palestinian Authority. It just looks that way.
It is no accident that in Carter's version, these two arguments are mushed together and left unrecognizable. Carter is a calculating diplomat, and he knows his way around land mines. He needs the arguments to be confusingly entangled, because neither can stand on its own feet. Helping the cause of peace by engaging a party that expresses no interest in a two-state solution makes no sense. Talking to a villain because he is strong while giving up on the possibility of moderates being able to overcome their difficulties is a despairingly defeatist goal.
"[D]irectly 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," wrote Matthew Levitt, author of the authoritative book Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad. And Levitt is not alone. The Israeli government, the U.S. administration, the European Union, and the so-called international Middle East Quartet all reject engagement and support the isolation of Hamas.