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Jimmy Carter has tried for decades to help move the Middle East toward peace. As president, he negotiated the 1978 Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt. In 2002, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Carter Center, which works to prevent and resolve crises and monitor elections around the world.

Carter has monitored Palestinian elections and has made many trips to the Middle East to try to find common ground that could help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a lasting peace agreement. His new book is called, "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land." It has a far less controversial title than his previous book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."

Jimmy Carter, welcome back to Fresh Air. You warn in your book that the era of a viable two-state solution might be ending, and that many Palestinians now don't really want a two-state solution. What do they want?

Former PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: They would prefer a two-state solution almost unanimously. That's what they would prefer to see, but the fact is, when Israel occupies the area that is supposed to be the Palestinian state, that is the West Bank, then they don't have any place to go to have a viable state of their own.

The main purpose of my book is to spell out a very clear picture of what Israel can have under a two-state solution, and there's a consensus on what can be done. The basic principles of it are that Israel withdraw from the West Bank. But to modify the pre-1967 borders in order to permit about half of the Israeli settlers who are in the West Bank to stay there, where they are. Those are the closest to Jerusalem. And to swap that same amount of land to the Palestinians, perhaps to create a corridor that would be monitored by Israel between the West Bank and Gaza, which is about a 30-mile road.

Secondly, the right of return, which is the most serious thing for the Palestinians. They have the right of return under all kind of international agreements, but I think the basic practicality is that the Palestinians will not have to have a chance to return freely to Israel. That's out of the question in my opinion. And very few, if any, would come back into Israel, but they should be given a right to come back into Palestine - that is, the West Bank and Gaza. And those that can't come back into Israel, under all international laws, would be compensated in an appropriate way.

And a third thing is to share Jerusalem. So, the basic premises of that is worked out very clearly.

GROSS: But you're saying that a lot of Palestinians are, basically, ready to give up on the two-state solution. They don't think it's going to happen, and that they're going to start pushing for a one-state solution, in which there's one state combining Israel and Palestine. And Palestinians get a vote and would soon, or already, outnumber Israelis.

Former President CARTER: Well, I don't say that's what they prefer. They see that as an approaching inevitability, which they deplore. I don't know of any Palestinian that prefers, as first choice, a one-state solution. But if Israel has taken over the only land on which they can have their own state, and if Israel refuses to withdraw from a massive portion of the West Bank, then the one-state solution is all that's left.

And that would be a debacle for Israel and has been condemned by the president - Defense Minister Ehud Barak and by the present Prime Minister Olmert and by Ms. Livni, who is maybe the possible future prime minister. All of them have strongly condemned the one-state solution. The one-state solution means that you have just one government between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and that way you have to have only one of three tragic solutions. The first one is ethnic cleansing, where the Israelis force Palestinians to move out of the West Bank. Secondly, where you deprive them of any equal rights if they're under the same government, which would be, obviously, the same as apartheid in South Africa, which they don't want. The third way is to give the Palestinians a vote.

And there are already more non-Jews in that one state then there are Jews. And they'll soon be more Palestinian voters then there are Jewish voters. When that happens, then the government will be controlled not by the Jews in a so-called Jewish state which they now have, but by the Palestinians. So, none of those three alternatives are attractive at all.

One tragic occurrence in the last number of years has been no real American presence in trying to orchestrate a reasonable solution. But I'm very pleased that before he was inaugurated, and since then, President Obama has said, I will move immediately to try to bring peace to the Holy Land, to Israel and to its neighbors, and I won't wait until the last year of my term, which President Clinton and President Bush did, but I'll start at the beginning. And he's appointed a superb leader now to go to the Holy Land. He's on the way over there today - yesterday and to work out a peace agreement and that's George Mitchell.

GROSS: You have a chapter in your new book that's headed, "Can Hamas Play A Positive Role?" Let me put that answer - that question to you. Do you think Hamas can play a positive role in peace negotiations in the Middle East?

Former President CARTER: Well, anybody that assesses the situation knows that Hamas will have to play a role because they govern one-and-a-half million Palestinians who live in Gaza. And they have substantial support among the two-and-a-half million Palestinians that live in the West Bank. So, they represent a major portion of the Palestinians. And the Palestinians have to be involved with Israel in any sort of lasting peace agreement.

Secondly, Hamas, in my dealings with them last April and again, in December, when I went over to see them, have pledged to me and to the public that they will accept any peace proposal that is negotiated between the Fatah leader and the PLO leader, that is Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel - any agreement reached, provided that same agreement is submitted in a referendum to the people, who are Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

So that guarantees in advance, and I think they will keep their promise, that they will accept that agreement, even if they might disagree with some aspects of it. So, I think that's a major step forward for the Hamas to make. So, this means...

GROSS: Can I...

Former President CARTER: This means that all the Palestinians are in favor of peace with Israel. Yes?

GROSS: But, I always wonder, you know, what's the catch? Like if Hamas says they'd support an agreement if Palestinians voted to support it, well, is there a catch there? If it were put to a vote to Palestinians, would Hamas wage some kind of campaign to make sure that people in Gaza didn't vote for that peace referendum? Would Hamas wage a campaign that would even scare people away from showing up at the polls? I mean, I don't know how much you can address - yeah?

Former President CARTER: I don't know how to answer that question. I doubt that because the international community would be fully involved in that referendum process. I would be there personally. The Carter Center has monitored every Palestinian election that's been held in history, including the one in January of 2006 that Hamas won. Every election has been superb.

The Carter Center has now monitored 74 elections around the world, and the three best ones were the Palestinian elections in 2005, 2006, and earlier in 1996, when Arafat was elected president. So, I don't have any doubt that it would be a fair and free election. And if they commit themselves in advance, which they have to me and also made this public, that they would approve the decision made by the Palestinian people, I think, overwhelmingly, the Palestinian people would vote for a reasonable peace agreement that had been negotiated by their leader, the PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas.

GROSS: My guest is Jimmy Carter, and he's written a new book about the Middle East, it's called, "We Can Have Peace In The Holy Land." I'm very interested to hear your thoughts about Iran. The Bush administration emphasized Iran, and Iran is a threat to Israel. Iran is a threat to the United States because it was getting close to building a nuclear weapon. And, of course, Iran gave you a very hard time when you were president, during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Do you see Iran as being the central player in that region now? Do you think Israelis and Palestinians need to negotiate a peace first or that things with Iran have to be resolved first? Or there should be some kind of grand deal, in which everything is negotiated in one large, all-encompassing agreement, which is what some people advocate?

Former President CARTER: Well, there are two things that have made Iran increase its stature and influence. One is the Iraq War, which has made a hero out of Iran. And the other one is the lack of progress in finding peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Both of those things exacerbate the international interrelationships among nations, decrease the stature of America and increase the stature of Iran.

The biggest threat now is Iran's movement toward nuclear weapon capability. And I've been very gratified during the campaign and since then that President Obama has said that he will negotiate with anyone with whom we have a disagreement in order to bring about a successful conclusion to a complex issue.

The fact is that under the non-proliferation treaty, which Iran is a signatory, they have a right to purify uranium in order to use it for the production of electricity. And that's what they claim they're doing. But I think it's obvious that, as long as the United States refuses to talk or negotiate with Iran, our influence there will be minimal. And I think it's a very good move if and when President Obama does have direct talks with the leaders in Iran.

The second thing that can be done to ease the tension there is for us to have peace in the Holy Land, that is, between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and Lebanon, between Israel and Syria. Lebanon and Syria are, at this time, officially at war with Israel. And if we take those factors that are now supporting Iran, particularly in Lebanon with Hezbollah, and in Syria, away from Iran with a peace agreement, that would greatly weaken Iran in the entire area. And for us to withdraw from Iraq would be another factor that would weaken Iran.

So, those are the ways for us to do it. And the key to it, obviously, is for Obama to carry out his promise at least to have communication with Iran.

You mentioned my being in office then. At the time of - when the Shah was overthrown and the revolutionary government took place in Iran, I immediately established diplomatic relations with the revolutionary government - and which I think was good for me to have communication with them.

Unfortunately, some militants took our hostages, who were my diplomats there in the revolutionary government, and created a lot of problems for me - in fact, may have interfered with my being re-elected. But I still believe that the best thing to do with - in dealing with a difficult entity in a political situation is to communicate with them.

GROSS: Has your faith in that ever been tested? Has your faith in negotiations ever been tested?

Former President CARTER: Well, tested, yes. When the hostages were being held in 1980, this was the most difficult period of my life, and I was encouraged by almost all my advisers to launch a military attack against Iran, which would have been the popular and acceptable thing to do. I could have bombed their oil fields or bombed Teheran, and I could have killed tens of thousands of Iranians with almost total impunity. Not a single one of our bomber pilots would have ever been killed.

But it would have been counterproductive, in my opinion. And my patience and my general political judgment was at risk, but I decided to do it peacefully. And eventually, the day that I left office, every hostage came home safe and free, and we never did have a need to bomb and kill innocent Iranians or to have our hostages slaughtered by irate Iranians who had been under attack.

So, yes, I have had tests of that kind. I think that, in general though, almost without exception, it's better to deal with unsavory people who are creating a problem, rather than to launch an attack or to perpetuate and exacerbate a bad situation. And that would include Iran. It would include Hamas. It would include North Korea and others with whom we have differences. I think the best way to do is to communicate with them.

GROSS: President Carter, thank you so much for talking with us.

Former President CARTER: I've enjoyed it very much.

GROSS: Jimmy Carter's new book is called, "We Can Have Peace In The Holy Land." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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