(1st Add: Includes comments by Joshua Muravchik from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research)
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Carter Center in Atlanta has refused to confirm or deny reports that former President Jimmy Carter has offered to mediate between the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in a violent coup last month.
Washington has maintained a policy of isolating Hamas and bolstering Abbas and his Fatah faction as moderates among Palestinians. Abbas is considered moderate because he publicly favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas has refused to accept the three benchmarks outlined by Washington's Quartet partners (the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) in order to be accepted into the international fold: recognize Israel; abandon terrorism and abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
The Palestinian News Agency Ma'an reported last week that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met with Scott Custer, West Bank director of the Carter Center, in Haniyeh's office in the Gaza Strip. Custer told Haniyeh that Carter, a Democrat, was willing to mediate between the factions. Haniyeh approved Carter's offer, the report said.
Custer would not respond in any way to the report when contacted by telephone and referred Cybercast News Service to the Carter Center headquarters at Emory University in Atlanta.
Cybercast News Service was then instructed to contact Carter's spokeswoman Deanna Congileo by email.
A list of questions was forwarded to her asking for verification about whether or not Custer had indeed met with Haniyeh; if the former president had offered to mediate between Hamas and Fatah; and where he stands on the Hamas-Fatah split and U.S. policy towards the two factions.
After numerous phone calls and several email appeals over a number of days, Cybercast News Service finally received a reply from Congileo, saying in full: "Thank you for contacting us, but the Carter Center has no comment."
Asked in a return correspondence if she would at least confirm that the meeting between Haniyeh and Custer took place, Congileo declined.
Prof. Kenneth Stein of Emory University said he was not aware of any attempt by Carter to mediate between Abbas and Hamas.
Stein resigned as a Middle East fellow from the Carter Center in December in a row over Carter's controversial book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Many critics charged that the book was not only anti-Israel, but also full of inaccuracies.
Stein, a Middle East historian and specialist in Arab-Israeli negotiations, told Cybercast News Service that there are two issues in question: whether an individual or organization has the right to work against a stated foreign policy -- like supporting al Qaeda when it is a declared enemy of the U.S. for instance -- and whether it's wise to do so.
"The United States has a sitting government that makes and implements policy, both foreign and domestic," he said. "Definite guidelines limit the engagement of American citizens or organizations in those policies."
"Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, however, neither organizations nor individuals have the privilege or legal right to violate national security," Stein said. "If they do, they are subject to public sanction or, in severe cases, prosecution. There is a fine line between disagreeing with government policy and actually working against that policy."
In the case of the Palestinians, Stein said it is clear that "working against the decision of the Quartet and the U.S. government to isolate Hamas is wrong, naively founded and not in the long-term interests of the Palestinian people, let alone America, the Quartet, Israel and the Arab League states."
While it does not appear that Abbas would be willing to re-embrace Hamas unless Hamas leaders renounce their hold on Gaza, any attempt to mediate between the two would in any case be counterproductive, Stein said.
"Any effort to reconcile Hamas and Abbas now is not in the political interest of anyone interested in a two-state solution," he said.
"The isolation of Hamas both by the international community and now by Abbas and the P.A. allows the P.A./Abbas to negotiate freely without the interference or hindrance of a Palestinian element that is interested in promoting its own ideology and not in bettering the political or economic interests of the Palestinian people," Stein said.
"The Palestinians need a state, they want a state, and the Israeli government and the international community backs those notions. Returning Hamas to a critical and essentially veto role in the Palestinian political community will only hurt long-term Palestinian interests in moving along the road toward statehood," he added.
"Abbas sees that and therefore, besides seeing the Hamas takeover of Gaza as unlawful, has no interest in reconciling with Hamas," Stein said.
Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar from the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said that Carter is often motivated by his own self-interest.
"Carter has many times violated U.S. policy and U.S. law in his endless quest for self-gratification. He always puts his vanity ahead of the interests of his country," Muravchik told Cybercast News Service.
"Although he claims to favor Middle East peace, Mr. Carter has degenerated into an Israel-hating anti-Semitic fanatic," said Muravchik.
"The split between Hamas and Fatah offers the first glimmer of hope for progress toward peace since the outbreak of the Intifadah in September 2000. Carter?s efforts, if successful, will sabotage that," he said.
Muravchik said there are many reasons why the policy of trying to bolster Abbas might fail, but that it is important to try anyway. "We need to combine this with pressure on Fatah to reform and to shift toward younger leadership."
Morton Klein, president of the pro-Israel Zionist Organization of America, was highly critical of Carter.
"Carter's actions become repulsive, [as he is] desperate to legitimize murderers like Hamas, who promote murder against Israel and America," he said in a telephone interview.
"No negotiations are possible with killers like Hamas," Klein said, adding that Israel should destroy and not appease the organization.
Carter has been involved in the Middle East for many years. He brokered the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state -- Egypt -- in 1979.
Carter also headed the international observer mission that validated last year's Palestinian elections, through which Hamas came to power. He was also an election observer in the first round of Palestinian elections in 1996 and again in the 2005 elections.
The Carter Center announced in May that it is "reinvigorating its presence in the Palestinian Territories in support of peace for Israel, justice for the Palestinians and the emergence of a viable, democratic Palestinian state."
The newly opened field office in the West Bank city of Ramallah was established "to closely monitor political developments on the ground, publish periodic reports on critical issues of democratic development in the territories and work with local partners on human rights and democracy activities," it said in a statement.
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