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Shalom Reading
Jimmy Carter’s Holy Land

Rights not barbed wire

In spite of its provocative title, Jimmy Carter’s latest work, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, is more memoir than polemic, more analysis than argument, and more reasoned than passionate. After thee decades of involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Carter has earned the right to speak on the state of the Holy Land in the new century, the state of the peace process, and the promises that have not been kept. Still, the title is provocative, and has generated outrage on the part of many pro-Israeli commentators. Micheal Kinsley, for example, wrote:

Comes now former president Jimmy Carter with a new best-selling book, “ Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” It’s not clear what he means by using the loaded word “apartheid,” since the book makes no attempt to explain it, but the only reasonable interpretation is that Carter is comparing Israel to the former white racist government of South Africa.

Carter has defended the title, saying he wouldn’t change it. But Kinsley is not entirely correct in saying that Carter doesn’t explain it. I think Carter explains that he means a system of forced separation:

Utilizing their political and military dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation, and apartheid on the occupied territories. The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa—not racism, but acquisition of land. [emphasis mine] (p 189).

Still, the reviews have been harsh, accusing Carter of anti-Semitism, plagiarism, and factual errors. I’ve long respected Carter. It’s easy to respect his post-presidency even if you don’t agree with his politics. It’s become almost cliché to say he was a better ex-president than he was a president. His work with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center, besides earning him a Nobel Prize, have served as an example of what a life of service is all about. Additionally, there are his books... novels, memoirs, children’s books, political science...he’s been prolific, and brave enough to tackle whatever subject interests him at the moment. His writing, like his life, has defied the predictable channels that others may have set out for him. But I admire him also for his honest and earnest Christianity. His faith informs his life, shapes it; he is an evangelical Christian who proselytizes not through shaming others or cajoling but through speaking of his own experience in faith, in a process that becomes not “proselytizing” at all but, in that overworked and often misused word, “witnessing.” I have always been moved by his discussions in Living Faith of teaching Sunday school at his church. I’ve always thought that the idea of a former president of the United States and world leader taking time to teach weekly Sunday school was an incredible testimony to the man’s humility and commitment to others.

I’ve always respected him politically also for his courage and his refusal to follow the political debates of the day. While many other former leaders continue to engage in the dogfight of Washington, Carter never has engaged in fiercest rhetoric of partisanship. While people like Bob Dole are trotted out by the right from time to time to level attacks on Democrats on national television, you never see that from Carter. Carter has certainly given his opinion on the war, or the Middle East, from time to time, but he doesn’t repeat the talking points of the Democratic Party just to score cheap political points. He doesn’t lash out at his enemies, or get drawn into debates with the lap dogs of the right who would nip away at the ankles of his legacy.

Peace Not Apartheid is exactly what you would expect from Carter. It’s a reasoned, balanced discussion, brutally honest at times, but always fair. It has the additional benefits of being lucid, direct, and concise. (Without appendices, it is only 216 pages.) Carter begins the book with an overview of the difficulty of the current situation. With typical optimism, Carter explains why he thinks the problems in the Middle East can be resolved:

In the times of greatest discouragement, ultimate hope has rested on the fact that, overwhelmingly, the people in the region—even those Syrians Israelis, Lebanese, and Palestinians who are most distrusted by their adversaries—want the peace efforts to succeed. The rhetoric and demands from all sides may be harsh, but there are obvious areas of agreement that can provide a basis for progress. Private discussions with Arab leaders are much more promising than their public statements would lead one to believe, and in Israel there is a strong and persistent constituency for moderation that is too little heard or appreciated in neighboring states or in America.

Throughout the book, Carter repeats this theme in various ways, and illustrates it through various conversations he has had with Arab and Israeli leaders. He wants his readers to believe that peace in the Middle East is possible, and even likely. Carter then leads readers through a history of the peace negotiations as seen through his eyes over the past 40 years. He discusses Camp David, Oslo, the presidencies of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, Carter’s own involvement in the Palestinian elections, Israel’s incursions into Lebanon, the election of Arafat, and finally a discussion of the “security wall” in Palestine and its effects on the Palestinian people.

Throughout the book, Carter emphasizes the dual conditions for peace between Israel and Palestine. The first is the recognition of Israel’s right to exist within the borders of 1967, and Israel’s withdrawal to the borders established by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Carter again and again shows that his discussions with both Israelis and Arabs indicates that both sides recognize, at least intellectually, the need for both of these conditions to be met. He also seems to indicate that elements on both sides are prepared to meet these conditions in order to achieve the goal of long-term peace in the region.

Two important obstacles currently prevent serious discussions on this issue. The first is the “security wall” that currently exists and undergoes continuing construction on Palestinian land.

The future prospects for the West Bank are even more dismal. Especially troubling are the huge dividing wall in populated areas and an impassable fence in rural areas. The status of this barrier is a key to future peace in the Middle East. The original idea of a physical obstruction was promoted by Israeli moderates as a means of preventing intrusive attacks after the withdrawal of Israel’s occupation forces. The first barrier, surrounding Gaza, proved that this was a valid premise, in that there was a substantial decrease in cross-border raids. The plan was to continue constructions of the barricade along the border between Israel and the West Bank.

Instead, the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert have built the fence and wall entirely within Palestinian territory, intruding deeply into the West Bank to encompass Israeli settlement blocs and large areas of Palestinian land...(it) cuts directly through Palestinian villages, divides families from their gardens and farmland, and includes 375,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side of the wall, 175,000 of whom are outside Jerusalem. One example is that the wandering wall almost completely surrounds the Palestinian city of Qalqiliya with its 45,000 inhabitants, with most of the citizens’ land and about one-third of their water supply confiscated by the Israelis. Almost the same encirclement has occured around 170,000 citizens of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

First a wide swath must be bulldozed through communities before the wall can be built. In addition to the concrete and electrified fencing materials used in the construction, the barrier includes two-meter deep trenches, roads for patrol vehicles, electronic ground and fence sensors, thermal imaging and video cameras, sniper toweres, and razor wire—all on Palestinian land. The area betweent eh segregation barrier and the israelis border has been designated a closed miltary region for an indefinite period of time. Israli directives state that every Palestinian over the age of twelve living in the closed area has to obtain a “permanent resident permit” from the civil administration to enable them to continue to live within their homes. They are considered to be aliens, without the rights of Israeli citizens...

President Goerge W Bush said, “I think the wall is a problem. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis with a wall snaking through the West Bank.” Since 1945, the Internationa Court of Justice has functioned esentially as the judicial arm of the United Nation system, and in July 2004 the court determined that the Israeli govenrment’s construction of the segregation wall in the occupied West Bank was illegal. (pp. 192-193)

While Carter is critical of the wall and the way it imprisons the Palestinian people, he saves his harshest words for the Bush administration, although he does not directly criticize Bush by name. Instead, he deplores the lack of US involvement in the peace process over the last six years, and the absence of the US as an impartial arbiter between the two sides. The following excerpt shows the manner in which Carter criticizing US policy (again, without naming specific leaders):

A major impediment to progress is Washington’s strange policy that dialogue on controversial issues is a privilege to be extended only as a reward for subservient behavior and withheld from those who reject U. S. demands. Direct engagement with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and government leaders in Damascus will be necessary if negotiated settlements are to be achieved. Failure to address the issues and other key leaders risks the creation of an arc of even greater instability running from Jerusalem through Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran.

In Carter’s analysis the time is ripe for renewed peace efforts. He describes the mood of the Palestinian people, including prominent prisoners whose opinions are highly valued, who have agreed in principle to recognition of Israel and a commitment to peace within 1967 borders. Unfortunately, Israeli politics currently make current negotiations unlikely, as does the lack of leadership from the United States. Carter concludes with this essentially irrefutable statement:

The bottom line is this: Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law, with the Roadmap for Peace, with official American policy, with the wishes of a majority of its own citizens—and honor its own previous commitments—by accepting its legal borders. All Arab neighbors must pledge to honor Israel’s right to live in peace under these conditions. The United States is Squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.

Peace Not Apartheid is a concise readable analysis of the current situation and recent history. But it also serves to remind us of the presence of one of our great statesmen. While Bush receives counsel from men like Kissinger and Cheney, Carter works for peace outside of the official Washington channels. It is unfortunate that at the end of a brilliant career of conflict resolution and leadership towards peace, that this honest and humble man be accused of anti-Semitism. Nothing could be more pro-Israel than working towards lasting peace in the region, and only a respect for international law and basic standards of human rights will create that peace. Carter and his book deserve better than the response it has received.

Ohdave, a frequent contributor to the Notebooks, writes at Into My Own. Previous contributions:

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