FORMER U.S. President Jimmy Carter is an invaluable free spirit in the Middle East. He has been visiting Lebanon where his Carter Center was providing “free and fair” monitors for the recent elections there (they would be useful in Iran just now) and he spent time in Gaza before returning to the United States. Mr Carter may not have the diplomatic status of appointed envoys but he gets to meet people who matter anyway - President Assad of Syria and the leaders of Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, for instance.

Isamel Haniyeh, who led Hamas in the Palestinian election it won three years ago told Mr Carter that President Obama's Cairo speech had shown “a new tongue, a new language, a new spirit”. At a press conference before his departure Carter went out of his way to emphasise his non-official standing these days. But he said he would be writing a report for the White House anyway which, among other things, would deplore the use by the Israeli forces of American precision weapons to destroy schools, factories and homes in Gaza. He also offered a neat commentary on prime minister Netanyahu's highly qualified offer of statehood for Palestine: “Palestine statehood could not come at the expense of Israeli security, while Israeli security could not come at the expense of Palestine statehood.” Wise words.