Jimmy Carter: 'Start Early' For Peace In Mideast

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Former President Jimmy Carter (far right) recently visited the Oval Office with his four successors i i

Former President Jimmy Carter (far right) recently visited the Oval Office with his four successors (from left): President George H.W. Bush, President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Former President Jimmy Carter (far right) recently visited the Oval Office with his four successors

Former President Jimmy Carter (far right) recently visited the Oval Office with his four successors (from left): President George H.W. Bush, President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Nearly 30 years ago, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that holds to this day. Much of the credit for that treaty goes to former President Jimmy Carter.

In the decades since, Carter has pursued a much more elusive goal: a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And he says there have been three recent developments that could help achieve it.

The first development was the election of Barack Obama as president, he tells NPR's Renee Montagne. For the Middle East, Carter said, that should mean "a balanced and aggressive commitment to bring peace. That's quite a change."

The former president also cited progress in his meetings with members of the Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, in April and December of 2008.

"For the first time, the Hamas leaders pledged that they would accept any peace agreement negotiated between the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israel," Carter said — as long as Palestinians approve the agreement in a referendum.

And the recent violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which Carter called an "evolving tragedy," adds what he said is "another element of urgency to bringing peace to Israel."

Carter has written a new book on that topic, titled We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land. It follows his 2006 analysis, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which sparked protests from supporters of Israel.

His latest book is subtitled, "A Plan That Will Work." And that plan, Carter said, is no secret: a two-state solution in which Israel's right to exist is recognized by its neighbors — within its pre-1967 borders.

Noting that those borders could be altered by negotiations, Carter said, "By the way, that's also what's been espoused most recently by the prime minister of Israel at this moment — that is, Ehud Olmert."

Carter said Olmert also realizes that Israel must withdraw from the West Bank, that Palestinians must be allowed to return to their land and that Israel must share Jerusalem.

"But there are two very difficult things," Carter said. "One is, Israel so far has not been willing to withdraw from Palestine, that is, from the West Bank. And secondly, the Palestinians will have to accept the proposition that all — a flood of Palestinians cannot return inside Israel.

"They'll have to return, I would say, into the West Bank and Gaza, not into Israel. And be compensated, those that can't return."

Carter has advocated engaging with Hamas to negotiate the Palestinians' future. Asked how that can be accomplished when Hamas, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization, has stated that its long-term goal is to destroy Israel, Carter said the group can change.

"Hamas has agreed, with me and publicly, that they will accept Israel's right to exist and to live in peace," Carter said.

The former president expressed confidence that if peace talks are held soon, they will be meaningful. Obama's appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as a special mediator to the region "holds good promise that something is going to be done," Carter said.

In his first full day in office, Obama pledged to help bolster the cease-fire that has ended the most recent conflict in Gaza. So far, Carter said, Obama is making good on his campaign-trail vow.

"President Obama, while he was a candidate, promised that he would start immediately" to work on a plan to bring peace to Israel and its neighboring countries, Carter said.

"This is quite different from what Bill Clinton did or what George Bush did in their administrations, when they only turned to the Mideast aggressively — or somewhat aggressively, on the part of Bush — for the last year they were in office."

The difference is crucial. "You have to start early, you have to do it when you have a lot of political clout in order to get anything done," Carter said.

As for what part he might play in any new peace talks, the former president said it won't be a large one and that he would work through his Atlanta-based nonprofit organization on public policy.

"I don't think I would have a sort of official role," Carter said, "and I don't want any. I'm much more free if I just represent the Carter Center."

Excerpt: 'We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land'

Storm Over a Book

I am writing another book about the Middle East because the new president of the United States is facing a major opportunity — and responsibility — to lead in ending conflict between Israel and its neighbors. The time is now. Peace is possible.

The normal path to resolving conflicts in this regional tinderbox should be through political leaders in Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, with assistance when needed from Egypt, other Arab nations, and the international community. Yet for the past fifty years the United States has been widely recognized as the essential interlocutor that can provide guidance, encouragement, and support to those who want to find common ground. Unfortunately, most leaders in Washington have not been effective in helping the parties find peace, while making it harder for other potential mediators in Europe, the Near East, and the United Nations to intercede.

This peace effort should not be seen as a hopeless case. Five Nobel Peace Prizes have been won by leaders who negotiated successfully in 1979 and in 1993 — one Egyptian, three Israelis, and one Palestinian. But the unpleasant fact is that there has been no tangible progress during the past decade and a half, despite significant efforts during the last years of the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Recent highly publicized peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have broached difficult issues but ultimately failed to narrow differences. At the same time, Israel and Syria became engaged early in 2007 in "indirect" conversations sponsored by Turkey, a fragile Gaza cease-fire has been implemented, and there has been an exchange of prisoners and the remains of others between Israel and Hezbollah but no further plans for easing tension between Israel and Lebanon.

As will be explained in the text, one of the notable developments in the region has been the repeated proposal by all twenty-two Arab nations to have normal diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel, provided major U.N. resolutions are honored. They have also said that modifications concerning controversial key issues could be considered in good-faith negotiations. This peace offer has been accepted by all Islamic nations and lauded by top U.S. officials, and Israelis have said it is a good basis for discussion.

If pursued aggressively with the full support of the United States and other members of the International Quartet, this Arab proposal could provide a promising avenue toward breaking the existing deadlock in promoting peace. This might make possible the formation of a multinational peace force in the West Bank to guarantee Israel's security, the release of prisoners (including a prominent jailed leader, Marwan Barghouti, who might heal divisions), updating the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to include members from Hamas and other factions, and reconciliation between the two major Palestinian political parties. If a general framework could be forged, it would be difficult for minor factions to block a peace agreement.

Absent any real progress, conditions continue to fester, with Palestinians divided into two major parties. One group, Fatah, is "governing" in some parts of the West Bank not controlled by Israel (see Map 1, which shows actual control), supported officially by the international community as the dominant element of the PLO. Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority to succeed Yasir Arafat, and he heads an interim government with most members from his Fatah Party. The other major group, Hamas, controls the small area of Gaza under the leadership of a group of local militants and more influential leaders of the politburo in Damascus, Syria. There are loyal supporters of these two major parties in both Gaza and the West Bank, and some tentative efforts are detectable among them and from other Arab leaders to reunite the two factions. As will be explained in Chapter 10, unified Palestinians, with a workable government and a competent security force, are a prerequisite to any substantive peace agreement with Israel, but these initiatives have been blocked or undermined by mutual animosity and by opposition from Jerusalem and Washington.

It has not been possible for the weak and divided Palestinian leadership to eliminate acts of violence against Israel from within the occupied territories, and many Israelis are fearful for their personal safety and for the ultimate security of their nation. To defend themselves, they accept their government's policy of harsh reprisals and the constant expansion of settlements, although the majority of Israelis do not support the settlements as an alternative to peace. Except for some infrequent public statements and assurances given to me based on the prospect of an Israeli-PLO peace agreement, Hamas has not acknowledged Israel's right to exist and will not forgo violence as a means of ending the occupation of Palestinian territory.

For more than three decades, a major focus of my personal interests and political activities has been to help end the conflict among Israelis and their neighbors. As president of the United States and a leader of The Carter Center, I have had a special opportunity to study the complex and interrelated issues and to consult with leaders of all significant factions in the region who have been involved in these issues and will have to play key roles in reaching this elusive goal. I have learned some useful lessons, which I hope will help the reader understand the current situation more clearly.

Despite the recent lack of progress, I see this as a unique time for hope, not despair. The outlines of a peace agreement are clear and have broad international support. There is a remarkable compatibility among pertinent United Nations resolutions, previous peace agreements reached at Camp David and in Oslo, the publicly declared policy of the United States, the Geneva Accord, key goals of the International Quartet's Roadmap for Peace, and tentative proposals made by all Arab nations for reconciliation with Israel. Perhaps most important, there is an overwhelming common desire for peaceful and prosperous lives among the citizens of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Tentative steps are being taken or contemplated by these players, all waiting to be consummated with American leadership.

We already have a firm promise from our new president that he will make a personal effort for Middle East peace from the beginning of his administration. The United States will find all parties to the conflict — and leaders of other nations — eager to support strong, fair, and persistent leadership from Washington. This will not be easy. Everyone who engages in Middle East peacemaking is bound to make mistakes and suffer frustrations. Everyone must overcome the presence of hatred and fanaticism, and the memories of horrible tragedies. Everyone must face painful choices and failures in negotiations. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the time is ripe for peace in the region.

In the following pages I will describe — as succinctly and clearly as possible — the past history, my own personal involvement and observations, present circumstances, key players, and steps that can and must be taken by the president of the United States to realize this dream of peace, with justice, in the Holy Land. Experiences of the recent past offer valuable lessons as to what to avoid and how to proceed.

In fact, I learned a lot from the reaction to the publication of my book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. When I completed the text of this book about Palestine in the summer of 2006, there had not been a day of peace talks for more than five years. In addition, there was no discussion in our country of the basic issues involved, and little interest in the subject. I and others representing The Carter Center had monitored three elections in the occupied territories and had gained an intimate knowledge of the people in the West Bank and Gaza and the issues that shaped their lives. I wanted a good forum to present my views, and I felt that explaining my book throughout the country would best meet this need.

I knew from experience how very difficult it was to sustain any objective political analysis in the United States of this important subject, primarily because few prominent political candidates or officeholders would voice any criticism of the current policies of the Israeli government. This meant that news media that were inclined to be objective had little to report other than occasional stories originated by their correspondents in the Middle East. On my visits to the region I found these reporters very knowledgeable, and they shared many of my concerns. I felt a personal responsibility to describe the situation, as best I could, to the American public, the news media, and members of Congress. I wanted to stimulate debate and perhaps some interest in reviving the moribund peace process. These were the underlying purposes of my book.

For most American readers, my book was the first time they had encountered both sides of these complex issues, including some rare criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Only by explaining both perspectives would it be possible to see how differences could be resolved and peace achieved.

As the text neared completion, I wanted a title that would be both descriptive and provocative. The working name on my computer was simply "Palestine Peace," but I didn't consider this to be adequate. I also tried "Land, Walls, Guns, or Peace," and finally decided on "Palestine Peace Not — — ," and began to search for the most descriptive final word. Over a period of weeks it became clear that it was apartheid, a word that had been used many times by prominent Israelis, Israeli news media, and visiting observers. These included a former attorney general, scholars and legislators, editors of major newspapers, human rights organizations, and litigants who appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court. Many of them used and explained the word in harsher terms than I, pointing out that this occupation and oppression are contrary to the tenets of the Jewish faith and the basic principles of the nation of Israel. Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and human rights activists from South Africa who visited the territories had used the same description.

I intended the word apartheid to describe a situation where two peoples dwelling on the same land are forcibly segregated from each other, and one group dominates the other. I thought the title and text would make it clear that the book was about conditions and events in the Palestinian territories and not in Israel and that the forced separation and domination of Arabs by Israelis were based on the acquisition of land and not on race, as had been the case in South Africa.

I realized that this might cause some concern in Israel and among I srael's supporters in America, but I intended to emphasize these distinctions in dozens of public presentations. Before this happened, I had copies delivered directly to the offices of all members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. This proved to be a mistake. Without claiming to have read the text, some prominent Democrats condemned the title, and this provided the basis for many of the questions during my subsequent media discussions.

In more than a hundred interviews and many speeches, I found the questioning to be challenging and not unpleasant, but I was surprised and distressed when I was accused of being an anti-Semite, senile, a liar, a plagiarist, a racist, unfamiliar with the region, and a supporter of terrorism — these charges were made in public statements and in full-page newspaper advertisements. This was especially painful because some of the ad hominem attacks came from Jewish friends and organizations that had been supporters and allies while I was president and during the succeeding years.

In retrospect, I should have realized that the previous use of the word apartheid during the spirited debates in Israel had already aroused the sensitivity of many Israeli supporters in America about Israel's being equated with the racist regime in South Africa. To introduce it into an almost nonexistent discussion of the Palestinian issue in our country was highly controversial. Another factor was a carryover from my presidential years, of doubts about my commitment to Israel, as will be described in Chapters 2 and 3. Also, I underestimated the debating skills of those with whom I was now engaged, and was surprised by their personal attacks. Another mistake was not attempting to build earlier and broader political support among groups that were dedicated to peace in the Middle East.

I was eager to explain my thesis to every available audience, but I especially enjoyed the exchanges at a number of universities where I spoke and then answered questions from large groups of students. In each case I urged them and their professors to visit Palestine and ascertain whether I had exaggerated or mistakenly described the situation. Christian travel groups and other tourists were encouraged to visit Bethlehem and other holy sites within Palestine to observe the intrusive wall and the devastating impact of the occupation on the lives of Palestinian Christians.

Although I did not enjoy some of the criticisms, the book and my explanations of it did bring about a debate, which was my principal goal. In addition, President Bush finally announced a peace initiative, to begin with a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, with observers invited from a wide range of countries.

In August 2006, Jeff Skoll, chairman of Participant Productions, asked if I would permit a full-length documentary film to be made about my work at The Carter Center. He was the first president of eBay and more recently had produced the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth, and several other motion pictures that accumulated eleven Oscar nominations that year. Later, I agreed to the proposal when he informed me that Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) had offered to direct the film.

Jonathan and I considered several theme options, including our Carter Center work in Africa and our Habitat for Humanity projects building homes in the area of the Gulf Coast damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He finally decided just to follow me around with high-definition cameras and record my daily activities. In November, his filming included the early days of travels to explain the Palestine book. There were dramatic news media interviews, discussions, arguments, speeches, book signings, and demonstrations that produced more than a hundred hours of recorded activities. These were interspersed with more tranquil scenes as I lectured at Emory University, interrelated with my neighbors and family, taught Bible lessons, made furniture, painted, exercised, and performed the duties of a farmer. Titled Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, the motion picture premiered in July 2007 and won several awards at film festivals. The high point of the film was my lecture and exchanges with the students at Brandeis University, which were charged with emotion and encapsulated the complex factors that must be addressed in the search for peace.

Copyright © 2009 by Jimmy Carter. 'We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work' by Jimmy Carter, published by Simon & Schuster; January 20, 2009

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