U.S. Middle East Policy
Carter shares insight on peace in Mideast
Former President Jimmy Carter's new book, "Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid," reflects a lifetime of contemplation on the Middle East. Mixing memoir and policy, it recounts his youthful fascination with the Holy Lands, his long acquaintance with the political leaders who have shaped the modern history of the Arab and Israeli worlds, and it makes a strong case for renewed debate about the best path to peace in a long-troubled part of the world. In a telephone interview, Carter spoke in detail about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his hopes for peace. Here are his unedited responses:
Q: Earlier this year the London Review of Books published an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt called "The Israel Lobby." That article, which generated much controversy, argued that American foreign policies in the Middle East, especially regarding Israel and Palestine, are not reflective of genuine American interests in the region and instead reflect very influential and successful lobbying efforts on the part of Israel and American supporters of Israel. Do you think that assessment is correct?
Carter: That's correct. Over the last 30 years of my life, one of my strongest commitments has been to bring peace to Israel and to have its existence accepted by all nations. I've traveled all over Israel. In fact, I've been to the Golan Heights three times, and we've conducted three elections there for the Palestinians. I've seen the intense debate in Israel about Israeli government policies, with the majority of Israelis habitually favoring the withdrawal from occupied territories in exchange for peace. But that debate does not even exist in the United States. A member of Congress would not dream of coming out in favor of Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories or condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinian people. And very few of the news media in this country would ever bring out an intense analysis of the issues involved in the Middle East as they are brought out fervently in Israel and throughout Europe. There's no doubt that there is a strong aversion to criticizing Israel in this country. I wouldn't say it's all because of intimidation, but that is one factor.
Q: How did lobbying affect your presidential administration's relationship with issues in the Middle East? Specifically, in the book you write about a March 1978 PLO attack in which a bus was seized and dozens of Israelis were killed. You immediately condemned that attack. A few days later, Israel invaded Lebanon. You write that before making any diplomatic response to that, you consulted with congressional supporters of Israel before stating that you expected Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, and before approaching the U. N. Did you feel under pressure in shaping the U.S. response to the invasion?
Carter: Yes, there was a lot of pressure exerted on members of Congress and so forth on behalf of Israel. At that time, there was a general consensus between me and the key members of Congress, and that included Sen. (Jacob) Javits (of New York), who was Jewish, that there was a presumption that Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories. When I negotiated with (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin and (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat, that was one of the things I insisted upon, that both of them agreed to accept. If you read the Camp David Accords, which are in the book, they call for the withdrawal of Israel's military and political forces from the West Bank and Gaza, for full self-determination for the Palestinians. And the Knesset of Israel agreed with that in a Likud administration. So I felt then and now that the main thrust of my effort was to bring permanent peace to Israel, on the premise that they would accept international law and withdraw to their own territories. That was subsequently confirmed in the Oslo Agreement in 1993, and more recently the international quartet's (the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) "Roadmap" also requires that Israel withdraw from occupied territories as its main premise.
In the meantime, Israel has been occupying and confiscating and colonizing increasing areas of Arab territory, which in my opinion is inimical to any sort of prospect of peace for Israel.
Q: In response to the 1978 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, your administration supported and the United Nations passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon. How many times over the last half-century has the United States sponsored resolutions that could be construed as anti-Israel? It strikes me as a rare thing over the last 60 years.
Carter: Well, it has been. I mention in the book that we've vetoed resolutions, some of them overwhelmingly supported by the world community, probably now about 45 times, in fact twice within the last two weeks when Israel attacked the Gaza people and killed those 18 civilians. The United States vetoed the resolution that condemned that action. And I have to tell you that I have always considered myself a supporter of Israel – but with the premise that Israel comply with international law and withdraw from occupying territories of the West Bank and Gaza. And what's degenerated in recent years, to a very disturbing degree, is the gross abuse of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupying powers. It's one of the most serious human-rights abuses about which I'm familiar. It aggravates and alienates not only the Palestinians and the Arab world, but most of the rest of the world.
Q: Your style was a great deal of active personal diplomacy and negotiation in that area. By contrast, President Reagan began his term with a very hands-off approach, as did the current President Bush.
Carter: Reagan eventually, by 1982, decided to issue a strong statement about the Middle East, and as I describe in the book, he asked me to help draft the statement, which I did. He sent his speechwriter down to my home in Plains, and we put language in there that Reagan repeated publicly that fully endorsed the premises of the Camp David Accords, including Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. And of course the first President Bush did more than anyone since I left office to try to minimize the impact of Israel's occupying Arab land. In fact, George Bush Sr. even withheld several hundred million dollars from Israel because they spent the money on settlements. But that hasn't been the case with other presidents. There were more Israeli settlements established on the West Bank when (former President Bill) Clinton was in office than at any other time. They had a blank check, in effect, Prime Minister (Ehud) Barak did, to establish all the settlements he wanted. And when President Clinton decided to get involved in the issue pretty late in his term, his proposals, which were very sincere and heartfelt, were never seriously considered by the Israelis or the Palestinians. His final proposal would have cut the West Bank in two, and would have left 205 settlements in the West Bank. And one of the key provisions of the Clinton proposals was that all previous U.N. resolutions would be moot and would be replaced by his proposal – and no Palestinian leader could accept that and survive.
Q: One premise of your book is that there is a divide between the public statements and the private aspirations of the leaders of the various parties in the Middle East. Can traditional diplomacy with diplomats sitting around a table solve these problems, or does this require that individuals meet privately for intense discussions like the ones you facilitated at Camp David?
Carter: It would be difficult for public diplomats to solve these issues. But the only peace agreement I can envision that would be suitable to Palestinians and Israelis is what was encompassed in the so-called Geneva Initiative. I helped negotiate that agreement, and it was endorsed by Clinton, (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair and by 50 other top political leaders and Nobel Peace laureates at the time. And a public opinion poll conducted by the James Baker Institute found that it was supported by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians. That spells out the premises on which Israel can have peace, and the Arab world can recognize Israel's right to exist in peace.
Q: I'm sure you're aware that there is emerging controversy about your use of the word "apartheid" to describe the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. It's a word with enormous moral weight, and you're certainly the most prominent American to describe the situation using that word. Could you comment on your use of the word?
Carter: I made it plain that I was not referring to racism, but simply to the desire to acquire Arab land inside Palestinian territory. And there is a total establishment imposed by Israeli powers of a separation of the two peoples from one another. I would say that in many ways the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupying forces is as onerous – and in some cases more onerous – as the treatment of black people in South Africa by the apartheid government. All Palestinians have to carry passes. When I was there monitoring elections in 2005, there were 719 roadblocks closed by concrete barriers, earth mounds or by official Israeli checkpoints. The Palestinians can't move from one place to another. They can't grow produce, for instance, to sell to their own people if it competes with Israeli fruit, vegetables and flowers. Gaza, which was supposed to have been abandoned, is absolutely imprisoned in a wall that the Israelis have built all around it. There are only two possible openings in that wall. One opens into the Sinai, and is open to only a few chosen people. And the other is open into Israel, and it has been closed almost all the time since the Israeli so-called withdrawal from Gaza. So the Palestinians are horribly abused and persecuted and deprived by the Israeli policies in the West Bank.
Q: Your book argues that the United States has a unique and enormously important role in facilitating the peace process in the Middle East, and that it has to function as an honest broker in that region. Many observers have argued that for decades the United States' image as an honest broker was questioned by Palestinians and Arabs in that part of the world, and many observers believe that during the last few years the United States' moral authority has diminished worldwide. What will it take for the United States to regain that moral authority and the ability and credibility to facilitate a successful peace process? Do you see any hope for that?
Carter: This is a bit presumptuous, but I would hope my book will stimulate debate and discussion that can help the process along. And I'm not trying to speak for him, but I've had long discussions with James Baker about this same issue. As I mentioned, his institute in Texas has run public opinion polls in Israel. And when he and George Bush Sr. were in office, they took strong action, not just words, to induce Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and to treat the Palestinians fairly. So I think there are some strong influences of a bipartisan or nonpartisan character that might be forthcoming in the future. Another thing is that many prominent and influential Jews have privately expressed their complete agreement with the thrust of my book, but it's almost impossible for them, in the present American environment, to say these things publicly. So maybe it will stimulate a discussion. And I don't think there's any doubt that the key factor and one of the primary causes of intense animosity against America from so-called terrorists of different kinds is the obvious bias of the United States government against Palestinians and for Israel. So these collective factors may, in the future, bring about an honest, good-faith effort for peace as we've seen on a few occasions in the past.
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