President Jimmy Carter told a packed audience at the American University of Beirut that President-elect Barack Obama cannot wait until the end of his term, like his two predecessors, to push for peace in the Middle East. Despite Carter's famed nonexclusive and peacekeeping approach to solving political conflicts, as demonstrated by his readiness to meet with all Lebanese political parties, at the end of his five day trip Hezbollah still refused to meet him halfway.
After meeting with members of Lebanon's parliamentary blocs and civil society leaders, former President Jimmy Carter offered that the Carter Center, a non-profit organization devoted to a variety of human rights missions across the world, monitor the parliament elections here next spring, a contest many anticipate will be an impassioned face-off between Hezbollah and its rival pro-Western groups.
WATCH highlights from the event below:
President Carter calls Israel's wall "an international crime", urges Barack Obama to act quickly to push for a Middle Eastern plan and speaks about Lebanon's highly anticipated upcoming parliamentary elections at the The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Though the offer must still be approved by the Cabinet, Carter revealed during a public lecture on peace in the Middle East at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs that he has been reassured that the monitoring mission will likely be accepted despite Hezbollah's refusal to meet with him, continuing their pledge not to meet with any American president. Still, Carter remained optimistic about the results.
"If the leaders of Hezbollah wanted to meet with me, I would have been delighted, " he said. "But since they chose not to I've understood from some of their supporters that they have no objection to the Carter Center participating in the election."
The vote could give the challenging Hezbollah-led coalition, which only holds 35 seats of a total 128, an opportunity to wrest power from the Western-backed anti-Syrian groups that currently hold the majority of seats, compromising Lebanon's future relations with America.
Despite their minority position, Hezbollah capitalized on an an 18-month political crisis that left the country without a President, but in the process, gained them veto power on key decisions in July.
Carter has been widely criticized in the U.S. for meeting with the exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal. But, like President-elect Barack Obama, he believes in being open to including all parties at the table.
Referring to the divisions between Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, Carter expressed regret at the deterioration of Palestinian Unity, but stressed that of the 73 elections the Carter Center has monitored, "the most perfect three were the ones conducted by the Palestinians", calling them "open, honest and fair contests."
After five days of touring the country, which included a helicopter ride above the disputed Shebaa Farms, Carter spoke directly and compassionately to the room filled with students, parents and guests.
He commended the recent developments of apparent diplomatic harmony between Syria and Lebanon. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Miqdad pledged earlier this week to look into the number of missing Lebanese in Syrian jails. "Syria will not leave one stone unturned in order to clarify everything related to the so-called missing Lebanese," he said. Carter referred to the moves as extremely significant in taking a major step forward in bring piece to what he referred to as the Holy Land.
Carter spoke at length about what he called "an aberration or distortion of a decision that Yitzhak Rabin made," referring to the walls that he suggested be built along the so-called green line that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. At the end of his point, he was interrupted with a thunderous round of applause from the audience. He said when Rabin was assassinated Ariel Sharon came to power and moved the wall eastward into the West Bank, at times 40 kilometers deep.
"This wall goes into the West Bank to encompass strategic points of the occupied territories and to surround illegal Israeli settlers that are already there," he said. "This will be roughly 700 kilometers long winding around like a snake. So that in the future when this wall is completed all of the Palestinians remaining in the portion of the West Bank they still control will be in prison, just like the Palestinians in Gaza. To me this entire process is an international crime that should be condemned and corrected by the international community."
Carter also announced that his second book, which will be called, "We Can Bring Peace to the Holy Land," will be released in the weeks following President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. He stressed the importance for Obama to act quickly, unlike President Bush and President Clinton, and commit to solving the conflict, emphasizing the importance of political courage and attitude in approaching the issue as President.
"I don't have any doubts about any of those things concerning Barack Obama," he said. "But I know tremendous political pressures exist in my nation among political office holders to comply almost without exception to the policies of the Israeli government."
But when asked by the editor of AUB's student newspaper about Barack Obama's speech to AIPAC this summer when he said that Jerusalem is "to remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," Carter confessed that he was "perhaps the most disturbed American, out of 350 million, when he made his speech to AIPAC." Carter was so distressed that he called Senator Obama immediately after it and was pleased when a few hours later, Obama appeared to soften his rhetoric in a CNN interview.
Carter also fielded a question about Rahm Emanuel's appointment as President-elect Obama's Chief of Staff. He confirmed that Emanuel (as well as Hillary Clinton) maintains close relations with Israel, but alluded to a more hopeful sign that General Jim Jones, whose approach as a special envoy on Middle East security allowed him to build a relationship of trust by training Palestinian paramilitary forced and deploy them in West Bank cities to keep order. Even Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told The Jerusalem Post, "There's certainly an improvement."
Karim Sleiman, a student at the American University of Beirut, said that he learned a lot from attending the forum but still does not expect much from America.
"It would be good if they would think about peace, but it is not our dream," he said. "Our dream would be more like peace combined to justice, why do we always think about peace, we forgot justice."
Like Carter he expressed optimism about Lebanon's political future, claiming that the Lebanese president is more independent than previous ones, even in AUB's Student Representative Committee, a group called "No Frontiers", a leftist independent group that has no political affiliations with parties outside of AUB, receives no funding and makes student-body decisions, won the election.
"We can see an improvement in politics in Lebanon," he said. "But most of the parties are still based on religion and sects."
The former president's trip coincided with an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Wednesday commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it, he emphasized his hopes that President-elect Barack Obama's administration could usher in a new era of effective American diplomacy.
"The moral footprint of the United States has always been vast," he wrote. "Our next president has an unprecedented opportunity to lead through example by inspiring and supporting those who would reach for freedom and by being tough and effective with those who would impede freedom's march."
Carter is headed to Syria to meet with Hamas' exiled leadership on Sunday to promote a possible truce between Hamas and Israel and a solution to the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, captured by militants near Gaza in 2006. He plans to return to Lebanon in May for the parliamentary elections and urged the audience to help foster a peaceful environment till then.