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Issue Date:  December 15, 2006

By Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27
Jimmy Carter on Palestine

The former president writes candidly about an explosive topic

Reviewed by PHILIP C. WILCOX JR.

No American president can speak with greater authority about peacemaking in the Middle East than former President Jimmy Carter. The 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt Israel Peace Treaty, made possible by Mr. Carter’s intense, determined efforts, were a high point in the history of America’s troubled Middle East diplomacy.

President Carter’s success in bringing peace between Israel and Egypt, was incomplete, however, since the goal of Palestinian self-determination, which was also mandated under the Camp David Accords, foundered when the negotiations for Palestinian autonomy collapsed and Israel resumed building settlements and tightened its hold on the occupied territories. Mr. Carter, who shocked Israelis and many Americans in 1977 when he spoke of the need for a Palestinian “homeland,” when the idea of a Palestinian state was anathema to most, was then, as he is now, ahead of his times. His recognition of the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and disappointment over the failure of the autonomy talks deepened his commitment to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East -- he calls it a “life goal” -- by resolving the core conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is a provocative and all too accurate diagnosis of why the Israeli-Palestinian impasse still festers 25 years after he left the White House. It is also an impassioned call for a two-state peace, a goal that Mr. Carter still believes is possible and, indeed, is the only way to meet the basic needs of both peoples. In brief, readable prose accompanied by maps, the author summarizes the history of the conflict, his own involvement, and the role of other key players like Lebanon and Syria, whose disputes with Israel, he believes, must also be resolved in a comprehensive peace. Historians will challenge some of Mr. Carter’s historical details, but the book is a memoir and a prescription for policy, not a scholarly text.

As the title of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid signals, Mr. Carter believes that Israel’s post-1967 decision to “colonize” the West Bank with Jewish settlements, thus denying Palestinian human rights and a genuine state, is the fundamental cause of the conflict and its ugly byproduct, Palestinian terrorism. He rejects the Israeli government’s narrative, which has always resonated strongly in the United States, that Arab and Palestinian rejection of Israel and terrorism have blocked progress toward peace. To emphasize that terrorism is a symptom, not a cause of the conflict, Mr. Carter points out that in periods when there was hope for peace, there was no terrorism.

Nevertheless, Mr. Carter forthrightly condemns terrorism as “morally reprehensible and politically counterproductive,” noting that it has alienated Israelis and Americans without redeeming Palestinian rights or land. He stresses that there will be no state for the Palestinians and no security for Israel until two indivisible requirements are met: abandonment of violence by the Palestinians and the end of Israel’s occupation. Mr. Carter’s ability to understand terrorism, while nevertheless condemning it, sets him apart from many American politicians who view terrorism as motivated simply by evil, in a vacuum. But Palestinian terrorism and Israeli policies of occupation and settlement are two sides of the same coin, as in other historic conflicts in which oppression has bred violent rebellion.

Like the rest of his analysis, Mr. Carter’s use of the words “apartheid” and “colonization” to describe Israeli policies departs from conventional American discourse on this conflict. Predictably, in the days before the recent U.S. elections, even before Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was released, politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean assailed the former president and his book and were quick to dissociate his views from those of the Democratic Party.

Mr. Carter blames the lack of open discussion in this country and criticism of Israeli government policies on “powerful political, economic and religious forces.” In a Nov. 16 interview with The Forward, he lamented, “There’s not any debate in the Congress. There’s not any debate in the White House, at least since George Bush Sr. and I were there.” (In the book, he praises former President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker for their diplomatic leadership and condemnation of Israeli settlements.)

Mr. Carter contrasts America’s reluctance to question Israeli policy with the vigorous debate in Israel. Indeed, the most trenchant and candid analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come from Israelis, some of them from the mainstream elite. For example, in 2002, Michael Ben Yeir, who was the Israeli attorney general from 1993 to 1996, said that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands after 1967 “was the product of our choice. We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, [and] engaging in theft. ... We developed two judicial systems: one progressive, liberal -- in Israel and the other -- cruel, injurious -- in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime. ... This oppressive regime exists to this day.”

Mr. Carter makes clear that unlike the old South African racial apartheid, Israeli policy is driven by a desire for more land, even at the cost of peace and security, and an attempt to separate the two peoples with fences and barriers that confine Palestinians in disconnected fragments of their own land. He documents practices Israel uses for these purposes: For example, land confiscation, house demolitions, crop destruction, controls over travel, trade and water, economic policies that seem designed to impoverish Palestinians and drive them out, and a separate military legal system that uses torture, detention without trial and other summary procedures. These practices have been exhaustively documented by Israeli human rights groups. But they are too seldom described in the U.S. media and usually only in the context of Israel’s need to defend itself against terrorism.

Mr. Carter is especially critical of the separation barrier that Israel is building, largely inside the West Bank on a path that protects most large settlements. He points out that the barrier, which he calls the “imprisonment wall,” would leave the Palestinians in enclaves that could not be the basis of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. He deplores the way the wall separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Christianity’s two holiest sites, and otherwise divides many Palestinians from their land and families, including those in the dwindling Christian community.

Mr. Carter thinks the Oslo Declaration of Principles was one-sided in favor of Israel. He lays primary blame on Israel for the collapse of the Oslo negotiations. He rejects the notion shared by most Israelis and Americans that Mr. Arafat rejected a generous offer at the Camp David Summit in July 2000, asserting, accurately, that no Palestinian leader could have accepted the truncated, fragmented “state” that was offered. Mr. Carter blames George W. Bush for deferring to Mr. Sharon’s aggressive and uncompromising policies during the second intifada. He is scathing in his criticism of Washington’s acquiescence in Mr. Sharon’s “acceptance” of the Road Map, when in fact, the Israeli prime minister’s reservations effectively repudiated it. He also faults President Bush and Israel’s leaders for virtually ignoring Yasser Arafat’s moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and for their handling of the current Palestinian morass brought on by the election of Hamas in January 2006 elections. Mr. Carter opposes the U.S. boycott of Hamas and Washington’s “strange policy that dialogue on controversial policies is a privilege to be extended only as a reward for subservient behavior and withheld from those who reject U.S. demands.”

Notwithstanding the current dismal situation, Mr. Carter believes there is still hope for a real two-state peace. He does not offer a specific plan for breaking the impasse and he points out that, ultimately, only negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can bring peace. He is encouraged that repeated polls on both sides show a willingness to accept two states and compromise on the major final status issues, notwithstanding general despair about the possibilities. The politicians, he says, not the people, are the problem. He cites the Geneva Accords, negotiated by distinguished unofficial Israelis and Palestinians, as a possible blueprint for a comprehensive peace. He applauds the 2002 Arab League initiative promising peace and normal relations between the Arab states and Israel if Israel liberates the Palestinians as the historic end of Arab rejectionism, and he believes that the Road Map still offers promise.

Above all, the former president stresses the need for American diplomatic leadership. And he warns of even graver consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East and for American national security -- even nuclear confrontation -- if the current deadly dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians continues.

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is timely and refreshing for its candor. Mr. Carter will doubtless be further criticized for being “anti-Israel” by those who do not grasp, as he does, that support for peace must mean support for both Israelis and Palestinians, and that criticism of Israel is compatible with -- and necessary for -- genuine support. Expressing his basic commitment to Israel in his Nov. 16 interview with The Forward, Carter said the Bible has taught him that “God ordained that the Jews should have a homeland” in the Holy Land, and that international law “says the same thing.”

Philip C. Wilcox Jr. is president of Foundation for Middle East Peace, a non-profit organization that works for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2006

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