JERUSALEM — Three decades after he revolutionized the Middle East by brokering the first Israeli-Arab peace accord, Jimmy Carter is back in the region preaching reconciliation.But this time around, the former U.S. president and Nobel laureate has found himself jilted by a Jewish state that once regarded him as a visionary guided by a heady mix of Christian compassion and realpolitik.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli government officials declined to meet Carter during his four-day stay here. He was refused permission to visit the Gaza Strip, and Shin Bet bodyguards were not even around to help his Secret Service detail.
At the heart of these slights is Carter’s plan to travel to Syria to meet Hamas’ leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal — a man blacklisted by Israel, the United States and the European Union for his orchestration of Hamas terrorism.
Carter’s itinerary has caused a stir in the United States, too, where President Bush and the three major-party presidential candidates criticized his plans to visit Meshaal.
The former president — who this week visited Sderot to meet with Israeli victims of Gazan rocket attacks, and went to Ramallah to lay a wreath on Yasser Arafat’s grave and embrace a senior Hamas official — has played down the significance of his meeting with Meshaal while also suggesting he may have the power to soften the arch terrorist’s commitment to Israel’s destruction.
"I am going to try everything that I can to get him to agree to a peaceful resolution of differences," Carter told reporters. "But I’m not a negotiator. I’m just trying to understand different options and communicate — provide communication between people that won’t communicate with each other."
Jerusalem officialdom kept mum about Carter’s peregrinations.
"We’re just not talking," said one Olmert aide.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, said last week that the Carter-Meshaal meeting would "embolden terrorists and undermine the cause of peace.”
Most Israeli media showed scant interest in the elder statesman’s visit, which came amid an influx of foreign dignitaries to Israel ahead of next month’s 60th Independence Day events.
One salient exception was the left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper, whose outgoing editor, David Landau, hosted the ex-president for a televised colloquy and ran an editorial titled "Our debt to Jimmy Carter.”
"The boycott will not be remembered as a glorious moment in this government’s history," the editorial read. "Jimmy Carter has dedicated his life to humanitarian missions, to peace, to promoting democratic elections, and to better understanding between enemies throughout the world."
Citing the landmark Israeli-Egyptian peace accord negotiated by Carter in 1978, Ha’aretz criticized the Olmert government’s slow progress in trying to marginalize Hamas in Gaza while pursuing talks with the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Carter’s method, which says that it is necessary to talk with everyone, has still not proven to be any less successful than the method that calls for boycotts and airstrikes," the editorial said.
Carter is among the Democratic superdelegates able to cast unrestricted votes for their candidate of choice at the Democratic Party’s convention this summer.
Dan Shapiro, the Middle East adviser for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said the presidential hopeful disagrees with Carter’s decision to meet Meshaal in Syria.
“Barack Obama views Hamas as a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction and believes they cannot be treated as a legitimate actor until they recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements,” Shapiro said. “That has been his position consistently, and it places him squarely at odds with former President Carter’s plan to meet with Hamas leaders.”
Phil Singer, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), said that "Hillary respects former President Carter but disagrees with his decision. She would not meet with Hamas without coordinating with Israel."
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain slammed Carter’s trip.
"Engaged in a campaign that deliberately targets innocent Israeli civilians, Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel," the Arizona lawmaker said. "President Carter is wrong to meet with Hamas, a terrorist group that has also killed innocent Americans."
The White House also disavowed Carter’s trip.
Sderot resident Batya Katar, who met briefly with Carter during his trip to the hardscrabble Israeli town, had some praise for the ex-president.
"I have to say that I was curious as to why he would want to go speak with our worst enemies, those who want to see our annihilation," she told Israel’s Army Radio. "But then I thought that if it helps, why not?"
Katar added that Carter, who described Palestinian rocket attacks on Sderot from Hamas-ruled Gaza as a "despicable crime,” was "very gracious and gentlemanly.”
Carter’s publication in 2006 of "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" made him persona non grata in much of Israel and among American Jews. The controversial book suggested that Israel’s West Bank policies were reminiscent of those of formerly white-run South Africa and that suicide bombers were justified in striking, though he later withdrew the latter passage.
Carter has said he remains committed to Israel’s survival and security.
After his trip to Damascus, he is scheduled to return to Jerusalem next week and address the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, a forum that has prestige but little executive clout.
"What was the deciding factor in inviting Carter to speak is the fact that the Israel Council is an open forum on international relations, open to discussing different opinions, even for those who are not necessarily defined as friends of Israel, especially on issues related to our region," said council president David Kimche, a former Mossad spymaster and foreign ministry director.
Ahead of Carter’s planned visit, Meshaal spoke about Israel at his daughter’s wedding, according to Yediot Achronot.
"Israel’s countdown will continue until it disappears," the Israeli daily quoted Meshaal as saying. "Au revoir in Jerusalem, and in liberated Palestine!"