Carter’s Critics warp the Debate he hoped to create

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Former President Jimmy Carter has written a little book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a little book that has created a big storm.

In describing his effort, Carter noted that he set out to accomplish two major objectives: to collect his personal reminiscences and observations based on his early years as a peace negotiator and later as an observer of three Palestinian elections, and also to provoke a debate within the US about the issues that must be addressed for there to be a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. The book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” has, it appears, been somewhat successful in accomplishing these goals.

Carter tells his stories well, presenting them in a delightfully conversational manner. Not a heavy or laborious book to read (only about 200 pages), it is selling extraordinarily well. For the past six weeks now, “Palestine” has been on the New York Times bestseller list, with over 350,000 copies in print. And it has provoked a debate, though not always as thoughtful and serious as Carter might have hoped for, or as serious as the topic deserves.

Even before “Palestine” was released there was a hue and cry from opponents whose objections have focused on two issues:

–¢ The title, which describes the options facing Israel as it pursues its current policies.

As described by Carter in an interview with a Canadian television network: “When Israel does occupy this territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200-or-so settlements with each other, with a road, and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing the road, this perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa.”

Tied to this is Carter’s conclusion, which has drawn additional fire — “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. …It will be a tragedy –” for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the world –” if peace is rejected and a system of oppression, apartheid and sustained violence is permitted to prevail;” and

–¢ The observation which Carter also makes at the very end of the book, where he notes that while “There are constant and vehement political and media debates in Israel concerning its policies in the West Bank but because of powerful political, economic, and religious forces in the U.S., Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.”

On both counts, the former President’s observations are well-founded coming out of his three decade-long experience in dealing with the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

When, as President, Carter helped to negotiate the Camp David Accords, the Likud government of then Prime Minster Menachim Begin was in the early stages of implementing an ambitious settlement program in the West Bank. At that point, these were but 50,000 Israeli settlers living in the occupied territories, mostly along the “Green Line” (the 1967 border separating Israel from the West Bank) and in the area around East Jerusalem. According to the 1978 Likud initiative (which was called the “Drobbles Plan”), the intention was to “make concrete the right to Eretz Israel”, by “constructing settlements and roads around the settlements of the minorities [i.e. the Palestinians] and in between them” in order to deny the Palestinians territorial contiguity.

Condemning this practice as a clear violation of international law and US policy, the US voted for a United Nations’ Security Council Resolution –” which Carter reprints, in full.

Israel was not deterred. They consumed to seize more Palestinian land and build more settlements. Even during the “Oslo decade” of the ’90’s, settlements continued to grow –” doubling in overall size, as did the construction of Jewish-only roads designed to connect the settlements to Israel and further encumber Palestinian freedom of movement. Today there are about a half million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem!

Unlike Gaza, which was considered expendable, even the most generous Israeli peace offers insist on annexing the bulk of West Bank Israeli-only housing projects as “irreversible facts on the ground”. The wall (or “barrier” as Israelis prefer to describe it) is designed to lock these settlements, roads and their surrounding lands into Israel. Knowing the typology of the West Bank and seeing, first hand, the impact of the wall on Palestinian daily life, Carter makes clear that if Israel persists with its current plan, the result will be akin to establishing a non-viable Palestinian Bantustan, or worse. It will be like a reservation in which Palestinians are locked into poverty, despair and anger, denied the freedom to grow their economy and even travel easily from place to place.

This is what which Carter aptly refers to as apartheid.

If Carter’s depiction of the logical end of Israel’s settlement policies has irked his critics, what caused outrage, is his observation that Israel’s policies cannot be freely debated in the US. And here, and in the way they have vented their anger, Carter’s critics have only served to make his point.

Even before the book appeared, political leaders were pressed to distance themselves from the former president. Major pro-Israeli groups and leaders issued denunciations using extreme and shameful rhetoric in an effort to ridicule and demean Carter. He and his work were termed: “indecent”, “outlandish”, “mendacious”, “an anti-Semitic canard…”shameless and irresponsible”, “a crude polemic”, and possessing “a warped sense of history… and a blatant abuse of our sensibilities.” This, of course, was not intended as part of a debate, but rather as a heavy handed effort to silence discussion of the book and isolate Carter from the mainstream of political discourse.

What emerges from all of this is the sad and inescapable reality that just as Israel demands peace on its terms, defining its non-negotiable “red-lines”, and declaring everything else off-limits, it appears that its supporters follow suit, only tolerating political discussion of the conflict on terms they deem acceptable.

As a result, frustration and polarization grow both in the Middle East and here in the US, as well.

Carter’s effort to change this dynamic was a good one. Sales are brisk, but given the refusal of the policy elites to discuss its central observations, the reasoned debate he sought to create will not, it appears, take place any time soon.

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