The National Catholic Review

Jimmy Carter has spent a lifetime teaching Sunday school, a practice that instilled in him a deep attachment to the Holy Land. That bond led him to negotiate the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the only peace initiative to have had a lasting impact on the shape of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His commitment to finding peace in the region also brought him friendship with some of the area’s storied leaders: Abba Eban, Anwar Sadat, Ezer Weizman and Yitzhak Rabin. It has led him most recently to write his new, controversial book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (Simon and Schuster, 2006).

 

Mr. Carter, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, must have known he would be courting controversy when he chose the wording “peace not apartheid,” a thinly veiled criticism of Israel’s de facto policy of separation and domination of the West Bank and Gaza to the detriment of peace initiatives. The book has earned him the opprobrium of Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School’s best known gun-for-hire, and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. Carter was not the first to employ “apartheid” to describe the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In the late 1990’s, Israelis of South African origin who had made aliya—had emigrated to settle in Israel—complained openly in the Israeli press about how Israeli treatment of the Palestinians was worse than the segregation they had known in South Africa. Writing in The Christian Century (2/20), James M. Wall quotes the former Israeli education minister Shulamit Aloni in support of Carter’s position. “The government of Israel practices a brutal form of apartheid,” she says. “Its army turned every Palestinian village and town into a fenced-in, or blocked-in, detention camp.”

Pro-Israel activists and other Jews object to the title of Mr. Carter’s book because of its racist connotations. The notion that anti-Palestinian racism motivates Israel’s Palestinian policy should be rejected. The Israeli motive, Mr. Carter argues, is rather territorial expansion. But the devices used to control the Palestinian population and their deleterious impact on the prospects for a negotiated peace do need to be openly criticized.

Another complaint of the book’s critics is that contrary to the template of their preferred narrative, it places excessive weight on Israel’s responsibility for subverting successive opportunities for peace. Of course, there are offenses and missed opportunities on both sides. As Abba Eban once said, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Mr. Carter does affirm the interests and rights of both parties, but his rendering of the history is marked by disappointment with Israel’s nonperformance of its promises and disillusionment at its resistance to fulfilling international obligations.

The education of Mr. Carter began with the implementation of the Camp David Accords. That agreement is best known for making peace between Israel and Egypt and effecting Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai. But the treaty also contained provisions binding both sides to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which require Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza with “full autonomy” for the Palestinian people, a formula actually proposed by Israeli Premier Menachem Begin. These latter provisions were never implemented. “For Menachem Begin,” Mr. Carter writes, “the peace treaty with Egypt was the significant act for Israel, while solemn promises regarding the West Bank and Palestinians would be finessed or deliberately violated.”

Following the withdrawal of Egypt from the fray, the former president observes, “Israel...permitted itself to pursue the goals of a fervent and dedicated minority to confiscate, settle, and fortify the occupied territories.” Of course, at that point the Palestinian Liberation Organization had not yet recognized Israel’s right to exist. Carter’s point, however, is that the Begin government never attempted to realize Camp David’s provisions concerning Palestine. Eban told the former president, “Unfortunately, it is clear that Israeli government policy is so distant from Camp David, that when the Likud spokesmen invoke the agreement, they are rather like Casanova invoking the Seventh Commandment” (the Sixth Commandment in the Catholic reckoning).

The value of the Carter book is that it points out a pattern of exceptionalism, in which Israeli leaders ignored and rejected their own prior commitments, set unrealistic and one-sided conditions for implementation of peace agreements or set themselves above initiatives for a negotiated settlement. Mr. Carter aids the reader’s assessment of these tactics with seven documentary appendices. He still offers hope for a negotiated, two-state solution; but the reader is left wondering whether would-be peacemakers can break the historical pattern of unilateral dictation of the terms of peace.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

Comments

Jan Hollerbach | 2/26/2007 - 1:09pm
To the Editor,

I was disappointed in Drew Christiansen's praise for Jimmy Carter's book. My understanding is that Mr. Carter is on the receiving end of monies from the Saudis. If this is true, it is hard for me to believe that his thinking has not been influenced by this.

But the main issue is that, since 1948, Israel has been fighting for its life. As a nation founded largely by concentration camp survivors, there was no mistaking the immediate assault on the newly formed State by armies of a number of Arab countries as another attempt to rid the world of its "Jewish Problem." (And, as we all know, the Church has not been innocent of anti-Jewish bias over the past 2,000 years.) Having been to Israel several times, and having wondered if the restaurant where I was dining was going to - at any moment - be blown up by a suicide bomber, it is difficult for me to be as one-sided as Jimmy Carter is in his assessment of the horrible violence that has beleagured this area for so many years. (Of course if you look with a long lens, Palestine has been the scene of wide-spread religious and nationalistic violence for many millenia.)

We walk a fine line here. There is such a thing as evil, as we who have parents who fought in World War II are certainly aware. There is also a need - incumbent on us as Christians -to be sensitive to human suffering and be compassionate. A comprehensive view of the Middle Eastern situation is not served by dumping on either Israel or the Palestinians. I believe Jimmy Carter's book introduces an anti-Semistic frame of reference in his analysis of the situation which is patently unacceptable. And I am immensely disappointed in America for promoting a book that is blatantly anti-Israel in a situation where there are perpetrators and victims on both sides.

Jan Hollerbach

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