Previously published in Metro
Israel and Gaza are again attacking each other, Syria is descending into civil war, four American diplomats killed in Libya: the Middle East is more fragile than ever. "Both sides should cease all hostilities," says former US President Jimmy Carter. "Israel should end its blockade of Gaza, and Western countries should work to facilitate reconciliation between Hamas and their Palestinian rival, Fatah. As long as Gaza remains isolated, the situation in and around Gaza will remain volatile."
Israel's leaders don't want a Palestinian state, Carter tells Metro in an exclusive interview with Metro. Carter, who still conducts international negotiations and is now a member The Elders, won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. He just returned from a visit to the Middle East.
The chances of a Palestinian state are fading. Whose job is it to fix this situation?
The peace process has been pretty well dormant for the past three years. Of course, in the past we played a key role in being the mediator and conveyer of meetings, but that's not happening either. The first priority would be for the Israelis and Palestinians to take the initiative. But the Israelis have continued with their massive settlement program in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians say they won't negotiate as long as Israel is continuing to take over their territory, so there's deadlock. The United States is looked upon by the rest of the international community as the primary interlocutor, so the European Union members don't take action. As a result, there's no intermediary who can move things forward and initiate peace talks.
President Obama says he supports a Palestinian state, but even so there's a deadlock. Does it take even more than the support of a US President to get a Palestinian state?
I think the big change is that the Israeli leaders have decided to abandon the two-state solution. Their policy now is to confiscate Palestinian territory, and they've announced publicly that it the Palestinians have to recognize not just Israel but Israel as a Jewish state, even though 20% of the Israeli community are non-Jews. Netanyahu has also decided that even the Jordan valley has to be under Israeli control. So, those factors indicate quite clearly that Netanyahu has decided that the two-state solution is not what he wants. He wants what is being called Greater Israel, Eretz Israel. That's a new development, and I think everyone recognizes this.
The Arab Spring had worldwide support. Now four diplomats have been killed and the region is considered less safe. Are dictators sometimes better than democracy?
A: I don't think so at all. For example, the Egyptian people had a very safe series of elections. As the Carter Center, we monitored several of these elections, and have also monitored the elections in Tunisia and Libya. I don't think there's any doubt that the termination of the dictators has been a major beneficial development. The outside world just tends to be too impatient. The United States declared our independence from Britain in 1776, and it wasn't until 12 years later that we had a constitution. Egypt is going to have a constitution within a year of the President assuming power.
So we're simply too worried about Islamists?
Look at the Muslim Brotherhood. I've known the Muslim Brotherhood leaders for 20 years. They were persecuted by the Mubarak government, imprisoned and so forth, and now they've gone to the people in an honest, fair and safe election. And, of course, they've prevailed because their candidate became President and they have a majority in Parliament. But they're a very moderate group of Islamists, whereas salafists and others are much more radical, at least judging with Western criteria.
The YouTube video defaming Islam caused attacks and huge protests in the Arab world, including possibly the killing of the four American diplomats in Libya. Who's to blame? Is there too much freedom of speech in the US, or are Muslims too sensitive?
First of all, all the evidence now shows that the killings of the four American diplomats in Libya weren't caused by the film but was instead a planned attack by al Qaeda. In the US, Britain, Norway, Sweden and other countries in the West we believe in the right of expression. Western leaders are often criticized in scandalous ways in paintings, words and sculptures, and that criticism is accepted as legitimate. But we deplore when there's a scandalous statement like the ones made in that YouTube film. We regret that it has caused pain to believers in the Islamic faith, but it happens to our own faith as well. But freedom of speech includes freedom of blasphemy.
But isn't it frightening in itself that a deranged YouTube video posted by an obscure individual can undo years of diplomacy?
Yes, it is frightening. I'm a Christian; I teach Bible school every Sunday. I've heard and seen statements made about my own faith that cause me pain. But I don't want the blasphemous person who made the statements put in jail. Yes, it's painful to see the reaction in the Arab world, but I think we have to anticipate it. People in the non-Muslim world who deliberately do this in order to cause Muslims pain underestimate the violence that can erupt from aggrieved Muslims. It's painful and unfortunate, but when you have to choose between that kind of pain and the right of freedom to voice your opinions we come down on the side of freedom.
Speaking of your faith: how do you view the growing role of religion in politics?
In my country, of course, there's a rigid separation of church and state, and our Constitution prohibits religious faith being endorsed by the government. But we have to understand that the governments in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and other fairly moderate states are based on sharia law. Then there are some places in certain parts of Sudan, for example, that enforce sharia law with extreme rigidity, like cutting off people's hands and or stoning people to death for adultery. Extreme implementation of sharia law is very bad, but look at Egypt: their constitution says that the principles of sharia law should apply. That's something that we adopt in the United States as well: our money says "in God we trust". We believe in the basic principles of God, and at the same time you can be an atheist if you choose. But in some Muslim countries, if someone says something derogatory about Islam, they can be convicted of blasphemy. That's obviously obnoxious to a Western observer. But each country has a right - depending on whom the voters elect in democratic elections - to impose or not impose the principles of religious law like the sharia.