A Key Critic's Problem with Jimmy Carter's Book

Credit: Emory University.

hide captionProf. Kenneth W. Stein.

Emory University

Carter Defends His Book

Former President Jimmy Carter discusses the criticism his book "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid" has generated.

Since the publication of former President Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, the Carter Center has seen a wave of resignations. More than a dozen people have left in protest, saying the book puts too much blame on Israel.

Emory University history professor Kenneth W. Stein, a former adviser to Carter, says he resigned his fellowship at the Center in Atlanta because he considers the book to be unbalanced. Stein has published a rebuttal to Carter's book in the current issue of the The Middle East Quarterly.

"He does what no non-fiction author should ever do," Stein writes. "He allows ideology or opinion to get in the way of facts."

Carter defends the accuracy of his book, save for one passage he now calls "terribly worded," that seemed to justify terrorism by Palestinians on Israeli citizens.

Stein spoke with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep:

Q: You wrote an earlier book with Carter about the Middle East?

A: We wrote the book The Blood of Abraham in 1984. We ping-ponged chapters back and forth. We had frank discussions, even disagreements. At one time, when I insisted that what he was writing was not something that was appropriate, he looked at me, smiling, and said, "Ken, only one of us was president of the United States."

Q: Stein says Carter's new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid is slanted against Israel. He resigned his fellowship at the Carter Center over the book.

A: The difficulty comes between me, the historian, and Jimmy Carter, the mediator. He tends to want to be more agile in the use of the facts. I'm a little bit more rigid and historically consistent. And my disagreement with him comes from that.

Q: Carter met with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1990. He wrote about that meeting in his latest book. You said that he presented Assad a little more sympathetically, and the Israelis less sympathetically, than was actually the case. What are the signs of that in President Carter's book?

A: President Carter, in his book, he says, "I recollect the meeting," and he said that Assad was willing to withdraw further from the line than would the Israelis.

Q: This is all about the Golan Heights, a disputed piece of territory between the two countries.

A: That's correct. Now there are two pieces of evidence that suggest what Carter is saying is not accurate. First are my own notes, at that meeting. And more importantly, I think, if you don't want to believe my notes, is the press conference that Jimmy Carter attended immediately following, in which he articulated the following, he said, "Now this is my personal opinion, I think the Syrians would be willing make a compromise and move further back from the Heights." What he now says in 2006 is, he makes it into fact, and you can't do that.

Q: Carter says you did not attend all of the meetings he was in on that trip. Is it possible that Carter had meetings during that trip [to Syria] that you just weren't there for?

A: It's possible he had meetings, he had communications with all sorts of people that I never saw. That's all possible. But in my conversations with President Carter, both before and after that trip, never once did he intimate to me that Hafez al-Assad was going to be more flexible about sovereignty in the Golan Heights than were the Israelis. It would also be inconsistent with Hafez al-Assad's status of wanting to be the leader of the Arab world and not wanting to compromise with the Golan Heights.

Q: I want to back away from some of these details, and I don't mean to suggest at all that the details are unimportant, but if we back away from some of the details, and look at the central premise of Carter's book, which is that you have a man of long experience on Mideast issues, who has met a lot of the players involved, who started out very sympathetic to Israel years ago, but has come around to the view that the Israelis are guilty of something he calls "apartheid" in their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank. Would you argue with the broad strokes of that?

A: I would argue with the terminology. I think, in his interview with you on Thursday, he used the word "total domination," he used the term "harsh oppression." Make no mistake about it, the manner in which Palestinians have lived in the territories since 1967 has been bad. Part of that has been clearly imposed and applied by the Israelis. Part of it has been clearly imposed by leadership that has not been able to demonstrate it's more interested in the Palestinians than it's interested in itself. In other words, what Carter has done in his book, Carter has put the burden of responsibility on one side.

Q: You arguing that this is a complicated situation in which Palestinians bear some responsibility.

A: And so do Israelis.

Q: A layman might look, though, at some of the facts, and let's emphasize some of the facts, here, and say, "well we've got this area, it's under Israeli occupation (that's the United Nations definition), you've got barriers, you've got segregated communities, you've got segregated highways connecting those communities to one another, why not call it 'apartheid'?" A layman might ask that question.

A: A layman would have every right to ask that question. But that doesn't mean, if it looks like a duck and it smells like a duck and quacks like a duck, that it's a duck.

Q: And the difference to you is?

A: The difference to me is, that part of this problem is that the Palestinians have chosen to use terrorism. And every time they've chosen to use terrorism, the Israelis have come into the territories, or they have closed the territories, and they have made it more difficult for the Palestinians to have regular life. There's not doubt that the Israelis have confiscated Palestinian lands, confiscated Palestinian lands illegally. But if you tell the Arab-Israeli conflict, and you tell the history of it, you cannot unpack it in such a way that one side is just seen to be responsible. History always tells us that truth is some place in between.

Jimmy Carter Defends 'Peace Not Apartheid'

Cover of 'Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid'

A Carter Critic Speaks

Emory history professor Keneth W. Stein speaks about his disagreements with former President Carter.

Former President Jimmy Carter finds himself in a defensive posture after criticism of his new book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. The best-seller has generated a passionate response in critics who say it is slanted toward Palestinians, and full of inaccuracies.

Since the book was published, Carter says he has been branded an anti-Semite and a bigot. Reaction to the book included the resignation of 14 members of a Carter Center community board, who say Carter puts too much blame on Israel.

Carter responded to those charges at Brandeis University this week, where he was later rebutted by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz.

In that appearance, the former president defended the book's accuracy, save one passage Carter now calls "terribly worded," that seemed to justify terrorism by Palestinians on Israeli citizens.

Carter says he was not completely surprised that his choice of the word "apartheid" in the book's title garnered criticism.

Yet Carter says he hopes his book will raise awareness about conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Here's the conversation with Steve Inskeep in full:

Mr. President, perhaps I could begin with the title of your book, which has caused a bit of debate. Could you just make, briefly, the best case you can for why "apartheid" is the best word to use?

Well, I'll try to make a perfect case. Apartheid is a word that is an accurate description of what has been going on in the West Bank, and it's based on the desire or avarice of a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land. It's not based on racism. Those caveats are clearly made in the book. This is a word that's a very accurate description of the forced separation within the West Bank of Israelis from Palestinians and the total domination and oppression of Palestinians by the dominant Israeli military.

Why not just describe that rather than bring in this word that's freighted with so much history from another place?

It would be hard to give that definition that I've just given you in a title of a book. The book is quite descriptive.

Would you describe for us, simply because the book has been criticized for its details, how did you write the book?

How did I write it? On a word processor, a computer. I wrote every word myself. I never have had any co-authors. I based it on my, you might say, 33 years of experience. Even after I left office, I traveled extensively in the Middle East. I doubt that any other prominent human being has been blessed with such a great opportunity, as I have, to actually know what's going on there.

You've been challenged in your recollection of meetings for example with Hafez al-Assad, the one-time president of Syria, and it's been alleged that your description of Assad makes him look more reasonable and makes the Israelis look less reasonable than what might actually have been the case. What was your version based on? Did you go back to notes and other documents that you had from the time?

Of course, I began meeting with Hafez al-Assad, who is now deceased as you know, back when I was president. I think back in back in 1977 in May or June. I have forgotten exactly which, but I met with him, trying to get him to support a peace process. On one occasion he invited me to meet with him and his entire family, and I met all his children and got to know them. One of them was a college student who is now the president of Syria.

But when you recollect, for example, your 1990 meeting with him, at which you asked about the Golan Heights, how that dispute might be settled with Israel, were you working from your own notes?

Of course, from my own notes, and my wife takes notes when I'm there and we have been very careful to make sure that all those descriptions are accurate.

Ken Stein, as you know, a former colleague of yours at the Carter Center, has alleged that his recollection of that meeting is somewhat different.

Ken Stein was a professor that I took along with me. Ken has attended some of the meetings with me. The more highly sensitive meetings I was the only one there except my wife to take notes.

Oh, you're saying that he did not go to all the meetings that you went to?

Of course, that's right.

There's also been some criticism, which you addressed this week at Brandeis University, of a sentence on page 213 of your book.

That was a terribly worded sentence which implied, obviously in a ridiculous way, that I approved terrorism and terrorist acts against Israeli citizens.

The sentence said that Palestinians and Arabs in general should end suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, when international laws and the ultimate goals of the roadmap are accepted by Israel?

The "when" was obviously a crazy and stupid word. My publishers have been informed about that and have changed the sentence in all future editions of the book.

Has that sent you flipping through the pages of the book to see if there is anything else there that wasn't expressed the way you had intended?

I don't believe so.

You mentioned that you have been labeled an anti-Semite. You do use the word apartheid in the title of your book, which defenders of Israel regarded as a label that called into a lot of bad associations. Whether you agree with any specific charge there, would you agree that kind of labeling is not very productive?

I think it's productive. I had two basic hopes for this book. One, that it would stimulate peace talks. Second, that it would reveal for the first time, to the American public, the horrible oppression and persecution of the Palestinian people and it would precipitate for the first time any substantive debate on these issues.

One other thing, Mr. President, one of the fascinating parts of this book to me is an area that has not been as controversial. It's one of the earlier passages in which you describe a time when you were governor of Georgia and you were invited to Israel by the government of Israel to look around, and you ended up standing on the banks of the Jordan River. Could describe what you did there and how that affected you?

I was given complete freedom to go where I wished. There was a security border along the Jordan River. There was a gate, and I got permission from one of the guards and I waded out in the Jordan River at the same site that I felt from my own knowledge of Christianity, that Jesus Christ was baptized. So, we just immersed ourselves in the culture and biblical history, and current political affairs of Israel in that visit.

If I may read a sentence from that passage, you write: "at the end of this visit, we left convinced that the Israelis were dominant, but just. The Arabs were quiescent, because their rights were being protected and the political and military situation was destined to remain stable until land was swapped for peace."

That's exactly right, and the premise then, you have to realize at that time there were only 1,500 total Israeli settlers in the entire occupied territories. This was before the massive Israeli confiscation of land and colonization of the choice sites. But the premise then, undisputed, was that Israel would soon withdraw from the occupied territories. So that impression I had was quite accurate at the time.

Can you think of one event or series of events that has caused your view to change so dramatically over those years?

Yes, the apparently permanent acquisition, confiscation and colonization of choice sites throughout the West Bank. These, the Israelis have taken away from the Palestinians. Apparently with ideas by some Israelis, to keep those areas permanently. That's the root of the problem that prevents peace coming to the Mideast.

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