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Jimmy Carter Means Well, but His Book Helps Neither Side

December 7, 2006
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Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is a man of good intentions. His tireless efforts to promote world peace, deeply rooted in his interpretation of his Christian duties, need to be recognized, even when they lead him astray. Thus, there is a tragic element in his present failure to grasp the full implications of his positions and statements. His honest urge to help the Palestinians sadly translates into a one-sided judgment on Israel, which breaks one of Carter’s own rules. "The United States must be… a partner with both sides and not a judge of either," Carter writes in his new book.

The problem is not the sharp criticism of specific aspects of Israeli policy. Israelis are used to having this dished out in even greater dollops by their own journalists, writers, intellectuals and politicians. However, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid" will be read by the Palestinians and others not as an invitation to negotiate in good faith, but as a prelude to a "show trial" over Israeli policy based on Carter’s highly problematic reading of history and international law.

Objections to his approach need to be raised, not because Israel should be above criticism, but rather because the false anticipation of such an external "verdict" is precisely what has vitiated the Palestinians’ future, and the peace process, for much too long.

To begin, the title helps perpetuate a false image of the "wall" of separation. To use the loaded issue of race is to misread the very nature of the conflict between two nations that have no racial differentiation between them.

Of far greater consequence is Carter’s assertion that Israel is in breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. He claims that the solution lies in "withdrawal to the 1967 border as specified in U.N. Resolution 242 and as promised in the Camp David Accords and the Oslo Agreement and prescribed in the Roadmap."

Aha! The culprits are not the murderous terror attacks, not the repeated refusals of Arab negotiators to compromise, but rather the official Israeli and American interpretations of 242. Therein lies, tragically, the false hope offered to the Palestinians that the need to seek a reasonable accommodation with the mainstream of Israeli opinion can be replaced by some coercive international judgment upon Israel’s policies.

But neither the specific history of 242, which Carter ignores, nor the language of Camp David, Oslo or the road map support his reading. To the contrary, the famous omission of the definite article — withdrawal from "occupied," not "the occupied" territories, which appeared in the French translation — strongly supports the interpretation included in the exchange of letters between President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, and later endorsed by bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress, to the effect that the 1949 armistice lines are not sacrosanct.

Overall, the tendency to rely on the United Nations is bound to be troubling to Israelis, scarred over the years by the manner in which they were treated in New York, Geneva or Durban. Moreover, Carter’s reading of the "right of return," central to the Arab League’s March 2002 "initiative," is colored by this peculiar interpretation of the role of the United Nations.

Carter overestimates the centrality of the Palestinian issue, even in the context of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, which has nothing to do with it. At one point Carter seems to bemoan the lack of Arab commitment to the Palestinian cause. Ironically, Carter’s greatest achievement, the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, is rooted not in this attitude but in Sadat’s decision to focus on Egypt’s legitimate need for peace with Israel.

The persistent tendency to minimize the role of terrorist attacks in destroying the peace process is another problem with Carter’s narrative. He depicts Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who gave his life for the peace effort, as a cruel and manipulative user of the Palestinians and of the Oslo process by quoting him out of the proper context of the struggle against murderous terror attacks.

Carter’s narration of the events of 2000 — and his rationalization of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s rejection of President Clinton’s plan — are hopelessly vitiated by the unquestioning endorsement of the Palestinian official version and by a systematic downplaying of the destructive effect that the rising tide of murder — "acts of violence" is his cleansed language — had on Israeli public opinion.

Indeed, when Carter addressed earlier this year the Herzliya Conference, he offered an apologetic interpretation of Hamas policies and the view that terrorism erupted only after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in May 1996. The audience gasped in surprise. The distortion was too much for them to bear.

The same may be said of his book. After all, as Carter admits, "the judgments will be made in Jerusalem, through democratic processes involving all Israelis who can express their views and elect their leaders." His book would have been a better contribution to this debate — and perhaps of help to the Israeli political factions whose cause he seeks to promote — if Carter would have avoided the misguided, one-sided narrative he chose to espouse.

In the end, Carter’s book does not help the Palestinians. It does them a disservice.

(Eran Lerman is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel and Middle East Office.)

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