AS A private citizen with a penchant for conflict resolution, Jimmy Carter had a right to conduct highly publicized meetings this week with leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. There are mainstream voices in Israel who share his belief that there can be no end to violence, and no final peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, without drawing Hamas into some kind of negotiating process.
Nevertheless, Carter is using his status as a former president in a troublesome way. Hamas spokesmen were quick to say that Carter's talks with Hamas leaders - in the West Bank, Cairo, and Damascus - signify a recognition of the group's legitimacy. They are able to make this claim because Carter is not like other peace workers from the West. Inevitably, his actions carry the prestige of a former president - and not just any former president, but the broker of the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
In the region, it doesn't matter that Carter was acting against the wishes of the State Department and his own party.
Indeed, Barack Obama spoke this week of his "fundamental difference with President Carter," saying, "We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction."
On the substance of the issue, Carter may prove right and Obama wrong. There are ongoing indirect negotiations, mediated by Egypt, for a Gaza cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Meanwhile, Israel's foreign minister and a Palestinian official from President Mahmoud Abbas's government are negotiating a framework for a two-state peace. If those talks succeed, Hamas will have to be brought on board somehow. It would not be the first group to use terrorism yet eventually gain acceptance from established states as a negotiating partner.
Still, Carter sets a bad precedent by conducting his own foreign policy. How would he have reacted if his predecessors made similar gestures while he was toasting the Shah of Iran on New Year's Eve 1977 as "an island of stability," or when he had the Pentagon tell Iranian generals to allow Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran, or when he provoked the seizure of American hostages by permitting the exiled shah to receive medical treatment in the United States? Carter may have good intentions, but he should know better than anyone that there can be only one chief of state at a time.