A former president puts the onus for resolving the Mideast conflict on the
Reviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg
PALESTINE PEACE NOT APARTHEID
By Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster. 264 pp. $27
Jimmy Carter tells a strange and revealing story near the beginning of his
latest book, the sensationally titled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. It is a
story that suggests that the former president's hostility to Israel is, to
borrow a term, faith-based.
On his first visit to the Jewish state in the early 1970s, Carter, who was
then still the governor of Georgia, met with Prime Minister Golda Meir, who
asked Carter to share his observations about his visit. Such a mistake she
"With some hesitation," Carter writes, "I said that I had long taught lessons
from the Hebrew Scriptures and that a common historical pattern was that
Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of
God. I asked if she was concerned about the secular nature of her Labor
Jews, in my experience, tend to become peevish when Christians, their
traditional persecutors, lecture them on morality, and Carter reports that
Meir was taken aback by his "temerity." He is, of course, paying himself a
compliment. Temerity is mandatory when you are doing God's work, and Carter
makes it clear in this polemical book that, in excoriating Israel for its
sins -- and he blames Israel almost entirely for perpetuating the hundred-year
war between Arab and Jew -- he is on a mission from God.
Carter's interest in the Middle East is longstanding, of course; he brokered
the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and he
has been rightly praised for doing so. But other aspects of his record are
more bothersome. Carter, not unlike God, has long been disproportionately
interested in the sins of the Chosen People. He is famously a partisan of the
Palestinians, and in recent months he has offered a notably benign view of
Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that took power in the Palestinian
territories after winning a January round of parliamentary elections.
There are differences, however, between Carter's understanding of Jewish sin
and God's. God, according to the Jewish Bible, tends to forgive the Jews their
sins. And God, unlike Carter, does not manufacture sins to hang around the
necks of Jews when no sins have actually been committed.
This is a cynical book, its cynicism embedded in its bait-and-switch title.
Much of the book consists of an argument against the barrier that Israel is
building to separate Israelis from the Palestinians on the West Bank. The
"imprisonment wall" is an early symptom of Israel's descent into apartheid,
according to Carter. But late in the book, he concedes that "the driving
purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South
Africa -- not racism, but the acquisition of land."
In other words, Carter's title notwithstanding, Israel is not actually an
apartheid state. True, some Israeli leaders have used the security fence as
cover for a land-grab, but Carter does not acknowledge the actual raison
d'etre for the fence: to prevent the murder of Jews. The security barrier is a
desperate, deeply imperfect and, God willing, temporary attempt to stop
Palestinian suicide bombers from detonating themselves amid crowds of Israeli
civilians. And it works; many recent attempts to infiltrate bombers into
Israel have failed, thanks to the barrier.
The murder of Israelis, however, plays little role in Carter's understanding
of the conflict. He writes of one Hamas bombing campaign: "Unfortunately for
the peace process, Palestinian terrorists carried out two lethal suicide
bombings in March 1996." That spree of bombings -- four, actually -- was
unfortunate for the peace process, to be sure. It was also unfortunate for the
several dozen civilians killed in these attacks. But Israeli deaths seem to be
an abstraction for Carter; only the peace process is real, and the peace
process would succeed, he claims, if not for Israeli intransigence.
Here is Carter's anti-historical understanding of the conflict. He writes:
"There are two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace in the Middle East:
"1. Some Israelis believe they have the right to confiscate and colonize
Palestinian land and try to justify the sustained subjugation and persecution
of increasingly hopeless and aggravated Palestinians; and
"2. Some Palestinians react by honoring suicide bombers as martyrs to be
rewarded in heaven and consider the killing of Israelis as victories."
In other words, Palestinian violence is simply an understandable reaction to
the building of Israeli settlements. The settlement movement has been a
tragedy, of course. Settlements, and the expansionist ideology they represent,
have done great damage to the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state;
many Palestinians, and many Israelis, have died on the altar of settlement.
The good news is that the people of Israel have fallen out of love with the
settlers, who themselves now know that they have no future. After all, when
Ariel Sharon abandoned the settlement dream -- as the former prime minister
did when he forcibly removed some 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip during
Israel's unilateral pullout in July 2005 -- even the most myopic among the
settlement movement's leaders came to understand that the end is near.
Carter does not recognize the fact that Israel, tired of the burdens of
occupation, also dearly wants to give up the bulk of its West Bank settlements
(the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was elected on exactly this
platform) because to do so would fatally undermine the thesis of his book.
Palestine Peace Not Apartheid is being marketed as a work of history, but an
honest book would, when assessing the reasons why the conflict festers, blame
not only the settlements but also take substantial note of the fact that the
Arabs who surround Israel have launched numerous wars against it, all meant to
snuff it out of existence.
Why is Carter so hard on Israeli settlements and so easy on Arab aggression
and Palestinian terror? Because a specific agenda appears to be at work here.
Carter seems to mean for this book to convince American evangelicals to
reconsider their support for Israel. Evangelical Christians have become
bedrock supporters of Israel lately, and Carter marshals many arguments, most
of them specious, to scare them out of their position. Hence the Golda Meir
story, seemingly meant to show that Israel is not the God-fearing nation that
religious Christians believe it to be. And then there are the accusations,
unsupported by actual evidence, that Israel persecutes its Christian citizens.
On his fateful first visit to Israel, Carter takes a tour of the Galilee and
writes, "It was especially interesting to visit with some of the few surviving
Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy sites and culture were not
being respected by Israeli authorities -- the same complaint heard by Jesus
and his disciples almost two thousand years earlier."
There are, of course, no references to "Israeli authorities" in the Christian
Bible. Only a man who sees Israel as a lineal descendant of the Pharisees
could write such a sentence. But then again, the security fence itself is a
crime against Christianity, according to Carter; it "ravages many places along
its devious route that are important to Christians." He goes on, "In addition
to enclosing Bethlehem in one of its most notable intrusions, an especially
heartbreaking division is on the southern slope of the Mount of Olives, a
favorite place for Jesus and his disciples." One gets the impression that
Carter believes that Israelis -- in their deviousness -- somehow mean to keep
Jesus from fulfilling the demands of His ministry.
There is another approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, of course -- one
perfected by another Southern Baptist who became a Democratic president. Bill
Clinton's Middle East achievements are enormous, especially when considering
the particular difficulties posed by his primary Arab interlocutor. Jimmy
Carter was blessed with Anwar al-Sadat as a partner for peace; Bill Clinton
was cursed with Yasser Arafat. In his one-sided explication of the 1990s peace
process, Carter systematically downplays Clinton's efforts to bring a
conclusion to the conflict, with a secure Israel and an independent Palestine
living side by side, and repeatedly defends the indefensible Arafat. Carter
doesn't dare include Clinton's own recollections of his efforts at the
abortive Camp David summit in 2000 because to do so would be to acknowledge
that the then-Israeli prime minister, the flawed but courageous Ehud Barak,
did, in fact, try to bring about a lasting peace -- and that Arafat balked.
In a short chapter on the Clinton years, Carter blames the Israelis for the
failures at Camp David. But I put more stock in the views of the president who
was there than in those of the president who wasn't. "On the ninth day, I gave
Arafat my best shot again," Clinton writes in My Life. "Again he said no.
Israel had gone much further than he had, and he wouldn't even embrace their
moves as the basis for future negotiations." Clinton applied himself
heroically over the next six months to extract even better offers from Israel,
all of which Arafat wouldn't accept. "I still didn't believe Arafat would make
such a colossal mistake," Clinton remembers, with regret. According to Carter,
however, Arafat made no mistakes. The failure was Israel's -- and by
Carter succeeded at his Camp David summit in 1978, while Clinton failed at his
in 2000. But Clinton's achievement was in some ways greater because he did
something no American president has done before (or since): He won the trust
of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. He could do this because he seemed
to believe that neither side was wholly villainous nor wholly innocent. He saw
the Israeli-Palestinian crisis for what it is: a tragic collision between
right and right, a story of two peoples who both deserved his sympathy. In
other words, he took the Christian approach to making peace. ?
Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of
"Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide."
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