Harvard Square Observer: Jimmy Carter’s Critics

Ernest Cassara

For the past couple of weeks, in this space you have read my ruminations re Jimmy Carter’s new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and have read some excerpts from the book.  Since then, I have heard and read all kinds of criticism of President Carter.  NPR’s “Morning Edition” of 26 January, for instance, carried an interview with Professor Kenneth Stein, who resigned from the advisory committee of the Carter Center.  What did he complain about?  That his recollections of a meeting with Bashar Al-Assad of Syria differs from Mr. Carter’s.  As Benny Hill might say, “Big Deal!”

Dennis Ross complains about the maps in Carter’s book, claiming they are very similar to those he devised.

Others complain that the book is unfair to Israel.

Thus far, I have not heard one mention of what is the core of the book, the discussion of the confiscation by Israel of Palestinian land, and the settlements in the West Bank.  As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, with a study group in October 2002, I saw what President Carter discusses:  Israeli settlements across the West Bank, connected to Jerusalem by roads on which only Jews can travel.  President Carter makes the point that it is possible for a resident of one of these settlements to never have to deal with a Palestinian.  Apartheid is not an unreasonable term, given this fact.

So, I for one, will only take the complaints of President Carter’s critics seriously when they discuss his description of Israeli actions which I saw with my own eyes.

As you know, Carter spoke at Brandeis University.  He received a respectful hearing from faculty and students.  He had rejected the earlier suggestion of a debate with Prof. Alan Dershowitz, of Harvard Law School.  This was probably wise, for, among other things, Dershowitz is a rabid Zionist.  I will never forget his advice to the Israelis in the Jerusalem Post of 11 March 2002 that they should make it clear that they would blow up a Palestinian village, if “terrorists” stemmed from there.

What I have not included in my previous discussions is the fact that the Israeli military maintains 500 or more checkpoints in the West Bank.  Palestinians cannot travel from town to town, without having to go through checkpoints.  They are a captive people. We have heard outrageous stories of 18-year-old Israeli soldiers keeping Palestinians from proceeding through the checkpoints to their jobs, sometimes for hours at a time.  We have heard that pregnant women, on their way to hospitals to give birth, have been blocked, some times with lethal results. 

In October 2002, the van carrying our study group was stopped at many checkpoints.  Our driver, having “street smarts,” if that is the proper term in this regard, pointed out to the Israeli soldiers that it would look real bad if they kept this group of Americans from getting to the airport in time.  We, by the way, were not on the way to the airport, but the claim worked. Our driver, also, suggested that the blond woman in our group sit up front, so the Israeli soldiers would see her.

This may sound humorous, but, at one checkpoint, the soldiers held up three UN vehicles, as best we could determine because a lady in Arab garb was seated in one of them.

Then I should mention mounds of dirt and boulders in the middle of main roads.  They disrupt Palestinian traffic, and make it impossible for merchants to transport their goods.  We were told that the mounds are pushed away, when Israeli merchants seek to go into a town with their goods.  On our way into Hebron, we had to leave our van, climb over the mound and walk into the city.

Should you want to read the Boston Globe and New York Times coverage of President Carter at Brandeis, and the comments of two of the Globe’s commentators, click on the following:

Thanks to James Adler for calling our attention to the following interview with President Carter.  As you know, he has been pummeled by folks who don’t like his use of the term apartheid in relation to Israel.  As he explained in the book, his use of the term does not refer to racism, as it did in the case of South Africa, but, rather, the attempt of an extremist group in Israel fully intent on confiscating as much Palestinian land as possible.

Editorial Reviews

The crowning achievement of Jimmy Carter's presidency was the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and he has continued his public and private diplomacy ever since, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his decades of work for peace, human rights, and international development. He has been a tireless author since then as well, writing bestselling books on his childhood, his faith, and American history and politics, but in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he has returned to the Middle East and to the question of Israel's peace with its neighbors--in particular, how Israeli sovereignty and security can coexist permanently and peacefully with Palestinian nationhood.

It's a rare honor to ask questions of a former president, and we are grateful that President Carter was able to take the time in between his work with his wife, Rosalynn, for the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity and his many writing projects to speak with us about his hopes for the region and his thoughts on the book.

A big thank you to President Carter for granting our request for an interview.

An Interview with President Jimmy Carter

Q: What has been the importance of your own faith in your continued interest in peace in the Middle East?

A: As a Christian, I worship the Prince of Peace. One of my preeminent commitments has been to bring peace to the people who live in the Holy Land. I made my best efforts as president and still have this as a high priority.

Q: A common theme in your years of Middle East diplomacy has been that leaders on both sides have often been more open to discussion and change in private than in public. Do you think that's still the case?

A: Yes. This is why private and intense negotiations can be successful. More accurately, however, my premise has been that the general public (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) are more eager for peace than their political leaders. For instance, a recent poll done by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem showed that 58% of Israelis and 81% of the Palestinians favor a comprehensive settlement similar to the Roadmap for Peace or the Saudi proposal adopted by all 23 Arab nations and recently promoted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Tragically, there have been no substantive peace talks during the past six years.

Q: How have the war in Iraq and the increased strength of Iran (and the declarations of their leaders against Israel) changed the conditions of the Israel-Palestine question?

A: Other existing or threatened conflicts in the region greatly increase the importance of Israel's having peace agreements with its neighbors, to minimize overall Arab animosity toward both Israel and the United States and reduce the threat of a broader conflict.

Q: Your use of the term "apartheid" has been a lightning rod in the response to your book. Could you explain your choice? Were you surprised by the reaction?

A: The book is about Palestine, the occupied territories, and not about Israel. Forced segregation in the West Bank and terrible oppression of the Palestinians create a situation accurately described by the word. I made it plain in the text that this abuse is not based on racism, but on the desire of a minority of Israelis to confiscate and colonize Palestinian land. This violates the basic humanitarian premises on which the nation of Israel was founded. My surprise is that most critics of the book have ignored the facts about Palestinian persecution and its proposals for future peace and resorted to personal attacks on the author. No one could visit the occupied territories and deny that the book is accurate.

Q: You write in the book that "the peace process does not have a life of its own; it is not self-sustaining." What would you recommend that the next American president do to revive it?

A: I would not want to wait two more years. It is encouraging that President George W. Bush has announced that peace in the Holy Land will be a high priority for his administration during the next two years. On her January trip to the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called for early U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. She has recommended the 2002 offer of the Arab nations as a foundation for peace: full recognition of Israel based on a return to its internationally recognized borders. This offer is compatible with official U.S. Government policy, previous agreements approved by Israeli governments in 1978 and 1993, and with the International Quartet's "roadmap for peace." My book proposes that, through negotiated land swaps, this "green line" border be modified to permit a substantial number of Israelis settlers to remain in Palestine. With strong U.S. pressure, backed by the U.N., Russia, and the European Community, Israelis and Palestinians would have to come to the negotiating table.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 29, 2007