President JIMMY CARTER: As you know, I've been called an anti-Semite. I've been called a bigot. I've been called senile. I've been called a liar. I've been called a plagiarist. And so forth.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Former President Jimmy Carter is responding to those charges this week. In his latest book, Carter wrote of his travels in the Middle East and analyzed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He's been accused of getting some facts wrong, of mislabeling maps, and of slanting the book against Israel.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Some supporters of Israel where especially unhappy with the title, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Some members of an advisory board of his Carter Center resigned. The former president defended his book in a speech at Brandeis University this week, and afterward we got him on the phone.
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 right word to use?
President CARTER: 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 very 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.
INSKEEP: Why not just describe that rather than bring in this word that's freighted with so much history from another place?
President CARTER: It would be hard to give that definition that I've given you in a title of a book. The book is quite descriptive.
INSKEEP: Would you describe for us, simply because the book has been criticized for its details, how'd you write the book?
President CARTER: How did I write it? On my word processor. On a computer. I wrote every word myself. I never have had any co-authors. I based on my - you might say 33 years of experience. I doubt, even when I was - 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.
INSKEEP: Well, you've been challenged in your recollections 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 the Israelis look less reasonable than might actually been the case. What was your version based on? Did you go back to notes and other - other documents that you had from the time?
President CARTER: Of course. I began meeting with Hafez al-Assad, who's now deceased, as you know, back in - when I was president, I think in 1977, in May or June. I've forgotten exactly which. But I met with him - trying to get him to support a peace process. On one occasion he was - he invited me to meet with him and his entire family. And I met all of his children. We got to know them. One of them was a college student who is now the president of Syria.
INSKEEP: But when you recollect, for example, your 1990 meeting with him, at which you asked about the Golan Heights…
President CARTER: Yes.
INSKEEP: …how that dispute might be settled with Israel, were you working from your own notes?
President CARTER: Of course. My own notes and my wife take notes when I'm there. And we have been very careful to make sure that all those descriptions are accurate.
INSKEEP: Ken Stein, as you know, former colleague of yours at the Carter Center, has alleged that his recollection of that meeting is somewhat different.
President CARTER: Ken Stein was a professor that I took along with me, and Ken has attended some of the meetings with me, and the more highly sensitive meetings I was the only one there except my wife to take notes.
INSKEEP: Oh, you're saying that he did not go to all the meetings that you went to.
President CARTER: Of course. That's right.
INSKEEP: There's also been some criticism, which you addressed this week at Brandeis University, of a sentence on page 213 of your book.
President CARTER: That was a terribly-worded sentence which implied obviously in a ridiculous way that I approved terrorism and terrorist acts against Israeli citizens.
INSKEEP: The sentence said that Palestinians and Arabs in general should end suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international law…
President CARTER: That when…
INSKEEP: …and the ultimate goals on the roadmap for peace serve.
President CARTER: The when was obviously a crazy and stupid word. My publishers have been informed about that. They've changed the sentence in all future editions of the book.
INSKEEP: Has that set you flipping through the pages of the book to see if there's anything else there that you maybe - just wasn't expressed the way that you intended?
President CARTER: I don't believe so.
INSKEEP: You mentioned that you've been labeled an anti-Semite.
President CARTER: Yes.
INSKEEP: You do use the word apartheid in the title of your book, which…
President CARTER: Which is accurate. Go ahead.
INSKEEP: …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?
President CARTER: 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 that it would precipitate for the first time any substantive debate on these issues.
INSKEEP: And one of the thing, Mr. President. One of the most 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 you describe what you did there and how that affected you?
President CARTER: I was given complete freedom to go where I wish. There was a security border along the Jordan River. And it was a gate and I got permission from one of the guards to go 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.
INSKEEP: And if I may just 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 quiescent because their rights were being protected, and the political and military situation destined to remain stable until land was swapped for peace.
President CARTER: 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. And so that impression that I had was quite accurate at the time.
INSKEEP: Can you think of one event or series of events that has caused your view to change so dramatically over those years?
President CARTER: Yes. Apparently a 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 their problem that presents peace coming into the Mideast.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks for taking the time.
President CARTER: I've enjoyed it. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Former President Jimmy Carter wrote "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." He defends a passage about Israel's borders at npr.org. And tomorrow on this program we will meet one of Carter's former colleagues, who has become a critic.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.