I find Obama’s position that we shouldn’t negotiate with Hamas defensible, despite his avowed willingness to talk to unfriendly foreign leaders for several reasons. The first is that a blanket acceptance of negotiation with any leader without context seems to stretch rhetorical credulity¹. I think that Obama is willing to make unprecedented diplomatic gestures toward different governments in order to signal a change in the way America does business (and to open the possibility of real rapprochement or upgraded relations with these states) , but I don’t think that necessarily entails sitting down with every would-be statesmen. If there’s no real willingness to negotiate or the event is extended photo-op ginned up so that a leader can pretend she/he is doing something–well, what’s the point in showing up?
The second, as per Matt Ygelsias, is that though it might make sense for the US government to refuse to sit down with Hamas, that doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t.
If we’re to learn anything about what it might take to get concessions from Hamas in a real negotiation (or to see how far Hamas would really need to reform its psychological positions toward Israeli offers) then someone has to hear from Hamas. And if people outside of the Palestinian Authority or Israel are to exert influence, some kind of channel (public or private) needs to be opened to Hamas. President Carter gives the US a politically viable way of doing that. Carter can say what he wants to Hamas and report back what Hamas says in return, and if either of them say crazy things, well, it wasn’t an official negotiation and we don’t support it. As an ex-president with a penchant for maverick foreign policy statements, to the consternation of more than one sitting US president, he’d have some credibility. Carter could be a kind of “public back-channel” that has political cover (against the loudest of the Likudniks) and credibility (for those worried that American negotiators are in the thrall of the Israel Lobby) who could provide information to US for potential future negotiations or let us know if such negotiations are aren’t in the cards.
Do I think the Bush administration would go for such a plan? Not bloody likely. Do I think Carter would go for such an arrangement? Perhaps with an Obama or Clinton administration, even then I don’t think Carter’s style (and status as an ex-executive) would mesh well with taking orders from another president or his cabinet.
¹ Would he, could he, in a box? Would he, could he, meet with the Iranians and a fox? No? But he said no preconditions. Typical politician.