There is not much room in American political life, whether Democratic or Republican, for trying to save Israel from its mistakes and the mistakes of AIPAC, its impressively effective lobbying arm in the United States. Former president Jimmy Carter is virtually the lone voice, along with his former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, willing to criticize Israel for its own good, in the name of American interests and for peace in the region.
Here is what Jimmy Carter had to say when I talked with him recently about his new book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.
Nathan Gardels: Otherwise revered figures like yourself or fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu are accused of anti-Semitism when you describe the Israeli occupation under which Palestinians live as "apartheid." Why is this description so inflammatory in the U.S. when it is so readily accepted everywhere else in the world?
Jimmy Carter: If you look at the record, the Israeli attorney general who served under the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even Benjamin Netanyahu have used this same phrase, "apartheid." But I didn't get it from him.
I'm talking about Palestine, not Israel. Everyone knows Israel is a democracy, with equal rights guaranteed under the law for both Arabs and Jews. But the persecution and rigid separation of the Palestinians from the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories is indeed as penetrating as anything that happened in South Africa. There are differences: This apartheid is not based on racism, but on the desire of a small minority of Israelis to acquire and hold Israeli land.
Now, people in the United States, including me, are naturally inclined to support Israel. I'm an evangelical Christian who teaches the Bible every Sunday at my church. I teach half the Old Testament and half the New Testament. We Americans identify the Hebrews, the Israelites, with ourselves.
But there is something else. The Israelis want to prohibit any sort of overt criticism of their abuse of Palestinians under this system. As I wrote in the Los Angeles Times recently, reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government in the U.S. is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices. For the last 30 years, I have personally witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts due to their influence.
It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. If they did so, they couldn't be re-elected. As a result of this AIPAC influence, there haven't been any serious peace talks sponsored by the U.S. in six years.
Gardels: Isn't the apartheid-type separation also out of fear of Israeli security?
Carter: I don't agree with that. It is not about security. Take Hamas, for example. It is usually accused of being the most radical group. But it declared a self-imposed cease-fire -- a hudna. Not a single Israeli life has been lost to so-called Hamas terrorism since August 2004. Since they have won political office, Hamas has stopped its terrorist activity.
Gardels: The neo-cons who took the U.S. into war in Iraq were fond of saying the road to Middle East peace was through Baghdad, not Jerusalem. Now the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker says the opposite -- the road to peace in Baghdad and the rest of the Middle East must go through Jerusalem.
Is the Israel-Palestine conflict still the key to peace in the whole region? Is the linkage policy right?
Carter: I don't think it's about a linkage policy, but a linkage fact. There is no doubt: The heart and mind of every Muslim is affected by whether or not the Israel-Palestine issue is dealt with fairly. Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region, Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That's not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don't do anything about the Palestinian plight. Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.
Gardels: Even if the U.S. did sponsor a major peace initiative, does Israeli have a partner for peace? It can't deal with Hamas, can it?
Carter: Mahmoud Abbas is the president of the Palestinian National Authority as well as the leader of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization.) Hamas has nothing to do with the PLO -- the only organization recognized officially by Israel in exchange for its recognition of Israel as a legal entity.
If they want to, right now, Israel can negotiate both with the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Moreover, the Hamas prime minister has said he favors direct peace talks between Mahmoud Abbas, representing the Palestinians, and Israel. If they reach a peace agreement, and it is approved by the Palestinians at large in a referendum, then he says Hamas will accept it.
Further, in my talks with Hamas leaders, they've told me a hudna -- or (ITALICS) unilateral (END ITALICS) truce with Israel under Islamic law -- could last two, 20 or even 50 years.
Gardels: "No nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over others," Kofi Annan said in his final address as U.N. secretary-general on Monday.
Speaking with me during the Israeli war with Hezbollah, your former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said something similar: "Neocon prescriptions of security through supremacy, of which Israel has its equivalent, are fatal for America and ultimately for Israel. They will turn the overwhelming majority of the Middle East's population against the U.S. Eventually, the U.S. will be expelled from the region, and that will be the beginning of the end for Israel as well." Do you agree?
Carter: I wouldn't go that far. True, these policies have already turned the Middle East against the U.S. and Israel. But I wouldn't go so far as to say it will cause the downfall of Israel. It is not too late for Israel to have good-faith talks with the Palestinians or, for that matter, with Syria about the Golan Heights.
Having said this, there is no doubt in my mind that Israel will never have peace unless it agrees to something similar to the Geneva Initiative -- endorsed by myself, by Bill Clinton and by Jacques Chirac among many others -- which, in essence, completed the Taba talks which fleshed out the proposals that Ehud Barak and Clinton worked out during Clinton's last days in office. The Geneva Initiative was in fact put together by the same negotiators of Oslo and Taba.
The initiative provides for secure borders and overwhelming recognition by the Arab world for Israel and a sovereign, contiguous, viable state for Palestinians recognized by the international community. The dividing border would be based on the 1967 lines but with a mutual exchange of land, giving Israel some of its largest settlements, Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
An international religious authority would control central holy sites, with the Temple Mount officially under Palestinian sovereignty and the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter of the Old City under Israeli sovereignty. Israel would decide unilaterally how many Palestinian refugees would be admitted to Israel, and other refugees could return to Palestine or receive appropriate compensation as a fulfillment of U.N. Resolution 194.
Gardels: One of the paradoxes of the U.S. intervention in Iraq is that it has, in effect, helped complete the Iranian revolution -- that is, it has undermined moderate Sunni regimes and expanded Shiite influence throughout the Middle East. Do you see it that way?
Carter: There is no doubt that Iran's influence has become enormously elevated in the region. There is no doubt about the esteem with which they are now addressed by other countries in the area. They have been boosted in every way by the Iraq war, not least because the empowered majority in Iraq now is Shiite.
Gardels: Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, died over the weekend. So did Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's U.N. ambassador who famously called for tolerance of Latin America's dictators in her famous "Dictatorship and Double Standards" essay that distinguished between totalitarian leaders and Latin America's brand of authoritarianism. Kirkpatrick's argument was in response to your policy of promoting human rights in the hemisphere.
Do you feel vindicated now that Latin America has gone democratic and Pinochet has died in disgrace?
Carter: I never felt the need for vindication. Espousing human rights was, for me, part of my American heritage and American duty. But I do remember with anguish that, as soon as I left office, Reagan sent Kirkpatrick down to Chile and Argentina to tell those dictators that "Carter's human-rights policy is over." I know she was angry that Somoza had been overthrown in Nicaragua by the Sandinistas.
However, three or four years later, Reagan himself began to understand the importance of human rights and became less ideological. Ultimately, I know that the policies initiated under my presidency helped end the military regimes not only in Chile and Argentina, but in Brazil, Ecuador and other places.