Mideast peace is possible only with forceful U.S. engagement, former President Carter said as he received an award for speaking out on controversial topics.
Carter — whose recent book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” infuriated much of the Jewish community with its allegedly one-sided presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — addressed some 400 people in Washington on April 4 as he received the Ridenhour Courage Prize.
“History has shown that progress is possible only if the United States of America assumes its historic role as honest broker between Israel and her enemy,” Carter said at the National Press Club, lamenting what he described as a six-year lapse in substantial peace efforts. “To play that essential role, America must not be seen as in the pocket of either side.”
Critics have said that by eschewing Clinton-era micromanagement of the peace process, President Bush has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester, feeding into other problems in the region as well.
Bush administration officials, noting the failure of Clinton’s peace efforts, have argued that the time is not ripe for a final peace deal and that it is fruitless to push until the Palestinians have made a decision to abandon terrorism in favor of peace.
Carter said the Bush administration and pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee prevent Americans from having a real debate on Middle East policy.
“The American friends of Israel, who demand such subservience, are in many cases sincere and well-intentioned people; I know them,” Carter said. “But on this crucial issue, they are tragically mistaken. Their demands subvert America’s ability to bring to Israel what she most desperately needs and wants — peace and security within recognized borders.”
Carter received a standing ovation for his 25-minute speech, which did not ignore the controversy surrounding his most recent book.
“I n the course of my life I have done these and other things that have sometimes provoked controversy, and in some cases I must admit that the criticisms may have been justified. But that would have to be the subject of another and much longer speech,” he said with a smile, as audience members laughed.
In this instance, however, Carter maintained that the opinions expressed in his book are in the best interests of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.
At a news conference, he claimed that support for his book, including from what he said were prominent Jews, was consistently at 79 or 80 percent.
During the news conference, Carter addressed the issue of why he would not debate the claims in “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” with Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and vocal critic of the book. Critics claim Carter can make the case that Israel was oppressing the Palestinians only by falsifying important facts and omitting key context.
Dershowitz “has his own vivid and highly developed position on Israel. I don’t have any criticism of him, but I doubt that in recent years he has traveled extensively throughout the West Bank and Gaza to get to know Palestinian leaders, to observe the adverse impact of the wall and things of that kind,” Carter said, referring to Israel’s West Bank security fence.
Carter also conceded that Dershowitz is probably the better debater.
“I’m not sure that I would like to debate him because I don’t think he has a balanced position, which I do, obviously,” Carter concluded, grinning.
Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founder of the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and a member of committees such as the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, presented the award to Carter, saying his career had been fashioned “out of a persistent moral sensibility, even about the most sensitive and contentious issues, such as the rights of the Palestinians, for example.”