An interview with former President Jimmy Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter's new book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," has generated much controversy in recent days. Critics have called it anti-Israel and anti-American. Carter says that he is trying to stimulate debate in America about...
Former President Jimmy Carter's new book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid," has generated much controversy in recent days. Critics have called it anti-Israel and anti-American. Carter says that he is trying to stimulate debate in America about a subject he says is taboo in public discourse: allegations of Israelis' human-rights abuses and the promoting of a plan for Israel to leave the occupied territories in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors.
He spoke this morning with David Postman, The Times' chief political reporter.
Q: I wonder first if you've been at all surprised by the reaction to this book?
Carter: I expected there to be some reaction because it brings up subjects that are rarely discussed in America, you know, the plight of the Palestinians and the almost complete absence of any sign of peace effort for the last six years. It is a very sensitive subject to discuss. And I think the reaction has been about what I expected.
I've had some wonderful meetings. … I'm in Phoenix, Arizona, right now and I spent a good bit of time last night meeting with a group of rabbis who represent all the Jewish synagogues around this state. So it's been a pleasant exchange, but about what I anticipated.
Q: … The choice of the title and the word (apartheid) would seem to generate a lot of controversy by itself. That, too, was expected?
Carter: Yes, it was.
And it was deliberately chosen as a provocative word. … I don't look upon the word provocative as negative. I wanted to provoke discussion and debate and analysis and study in this country, because it is almost universally absent.
When I go to Jerusalem or to Tel Aviv or Nazareth or anywhere in Israel, the discussions and debates are intense and constant about Israeli policies in the West Bank and whether they are advisable or not. The same thing exists, obviously, in the Arab world and in Europe. But in this country, zero.
Rarely is any sort of comment made in the public news media that can be interpreted as critical of Israel, and so I deliberately wanted to stimulate a discussion.
Q: You say that in Israel both the media is more open about discussing these things, that the population as a whole in Israel, I think you said, is more supportive of a solution than the government of Israel.
Carter: That's correct. I've been deeply immersed in Mideast affairs as president and since then. And for the last 40 years I've made a point to examine the public opinion polls that are conducted in Israel, and invariably a majority of Israelis always favor withdrawing from the occupation of Palestinian land in exchange for peace.
And this was a general premise, I would say, until Prime Minister Rabin helped negotiate the so-called Oslo Agreement in 1993 and subsequently he was assassinated. Since then there hasn't been any progress toward peace of a detectable nature.
Q: What do you think counts for the fact that in Israel there has been more open debate?
Carter: Well, there are two reasons, basically. … I happen to be a Christian. Since I was 3 years old I've learned about the Hebrews, I've learned about the Israelites, I've learned about God's chosen people, from whom Jesus Christ came, whom I worship. I teach about this every Sunday in my local church and I've been doing it since I was 18 years old, as a matter of fact.
So we naturally are trying to want Israel to be secure and to survive – a commitment I maintain. But that is a permeating concept in this nation.
And the other factor is one owing to an organization, a political action group, called America Israel Political Action Committee, or AIPAC. It's the most effective lobby that I have ever seen, as a president and since then. And it's completely legitimate. They're just doing their job and they are extremely powerful in this country. And their purpose is not to promote peace in the Mideast. Their purpose is to explain the policies of the government of Israel at a particular time and to get as much support for those policies in America as possible, which is completely legitimate. And they are extremely knowledgeable and extremely fervent and very effective.
Q: I was surprised to find in the book there is only passing reference to AIPAC itself, though.
Carter: Well, that's true.
Q: It surprised me only because it seems a thread runs through it about almost the surprising power that Israel has in America, and that comes through AIPAC, doesn't it?
Carter: It's those two factors. I don't want to minimize the first one about Christians.
Since my book came out I was at, I would say, [unintelligible] 10 other Jewish organizations in this country that are very much equivalent to the Peace Now movement inside Israel. They don't agree with AIPAC's unvarying support of Israeli government policies and they do want to see peace talks initiated. They do want to see Israel withdraw from the occupied territories and so forth. But their voices are basically nonexistent or muted. But they are there and they have communicated with me. But they don't have any organization, it's not a political action committee. It's just groups of Jewish citizens who feel that way.
Q: If it's true that AIPAC dictates American policy, is that a criticism of AIPAC, or is it a criticism of the people who actually carry out that foreign policy? Shouldn't they be open to more criticism than AIPAC?
Carter: I'm not criticizing any member of Congress because I see the pressures on them. But if anyone wants to be elected or re-elected to Congress it would be inconceivable that they would say, 'If I'm elected I'm going to take a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians,' or that they would say 'I'm going to hope that Israel would withdraw from occupied territories and comply with international law,' or to say 'I'm going to make sure that the Palestinian human rights are protected.' It would be political suicide, which is unfortunate in my opinion. But I'm not criticizing either AIPAC or the candidates. It's just the way of life in this nation. …
Various elements inside the Israeli government, at this very moment, have very strong feelings on both sides, and I would say a substantial portion of them agree with what I've advocated in this book – and that is that there be a peace agreement permanently for Israel based on withdrawal from occupied territories.
Q: Taking you back to what you said about the Christian element here in America. Obviously, a lot of people who have been strong supporters of the same AIPAC line have been the Jerry Falwells of the world. What has that done to foreign policy? Do you think the conservative fundamentalist movement has had some impact on that as well?
Carter: Well, there is no doubt about that. … I noticed that when Ariel Sharon was stricken -- he's still unconscious – Pat Robertson announced that this is a punishment of God because Sharon had advocated withdrawing from Gaza, which only comprises 1 percent of the Holy Land. But that at least demonstrates their attitude toward the Israeli situation.
Q: But a lot of their position is premised on "we want to save Israel," but not necessarily save the Jews in the Second Coming. Isn't that right?
Carter: That's right. Their purpose is to wipe out all non-Jews out of the Holy Land so Christ can return and then in the ultimate commitment, is that all Jews would either be burned in fire or converted to Christianity. That's the ultimate. It's an extreme and, I think, ridiculous interpretation of the scriptures.
Q: Do you think with the book and all the interviews you've able to do now, do you have any hope that there might be a little more lasting, open debate and dialogue about this in the United States or will it get bottled back up after?
Carter: The book will have an effect. But as you probably noticed last week, the Baker-Hamilton committee [the Iraq Study Group] made the exact same recommendation -- that peace talks be initiated between Israel and Palestine after an absence of six years. And this was an indication from a different and much more powerful voice that the situation in the Holy Land is directly related to the resolution of the Iraqi quagmire. Because most of the intense animosity against America, and this includes 95 percent of the people even in Jordan and Egypt in public opinion polls who disapprove of America now, it's not because we invaded Iraq, it's because we've not done anything to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians or to alleviate that powder keg between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Q: Did I hear this week that Baker had asked you to join that commission?
Carter: No, he asked me if I wanted to testify before the committee. I talked to him privately about each of (what) they were considering. Since I was such a fervent opponent of the original invasion of Iraq, I decided not to testify. But I let him know that I supported the work of the committee and I have told several media since then that I think their recommendations are the most balanced and potentially effective that I've ever heard.
Q: Do you think those recommendations would both help the situation in Iraq and stabilize Iraq and the greater Middle East?
Carter: Yes, I certainly do.
One of their recommendations is to have all the nations in that region combine in a common commitment to the Iraqi people and that would include Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan and Syria and Iran. And I would even reach out to France and Russia to let the Iraqi people know that a global coalition of people support the Iraqis' right to run their own affairs, after the American occupation is over and dealing with both politics, and military affairs and obviously, also economic affairs, even including oil. I think that would be a stabilizing factor and that's part of what the Baker-Hamilton committee had in mind.
Q: What do you think is the likelihood of any of that being implemented now?
Carter: I have been on a book tour and I haven't really monitored the news very closely ... But I notice in the New York Times this morning that the White House is going to delay any sort of changes in Iraq until next year. … That indicates to me it's not a matter of urgency with the White House. Or maybe they're giving it careful consideration.