Forever Deadlocked?

Book cover
Palestineby By Jimmy CarterSimon & Schuster. 265p $27
Two societiesIsraeli and Palestiniancoexist in one land. Revered as holy land by Jews, Christians and Muslims, this special space has for decades been cursed by outrageous violence. The present moment is a terrible one for both societies. For this very reason, conversation between the contending parties is more necessary than ever before, but the parties are isolated and locked into stalemate.

Neither side has the one thing they most need or desire. Israelis cherish security, almost more than anything else. It is the most important thing they lack. Some of them imagine they can achieve security through a host of military adventures and walls and checkpoints and home demolitions. But it is more likely that Israel will finally achieve the security it deserves when Palestinians decide to give it to them.

Palestinians cherish freedom, almost more than anything else. It is the most important thing they lack. Some of them imagine they can achieve independence by relying on Katyusha and Kassam rockets and suicide belts to express their frustration and outrage. But it is more likely that Palestinians will finally have the freedom they deserve when Israel decides to give it to them.

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Is breakthrough from a lose-lose situation to a win-win situation possible? The former U.S. president and Nobel Peace laureate Jimmy Carter has two starkly differing answers to this enormously significant question.

No. There will be no peace as long as the parties are locked into an indecisive stalemate or arrogant unilateralism, both of which needlessly postpone an effective resolution of the longest raging unresolved conflict in the modern world.

Yes. When serious negotiators attend to the specific details of what both sides need, as Israeli and Egyptian negotiators did at Camp David in 1978, and as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators did in the unofficial but very intense negotiations that produced a detailed blueprint for peace known as the Geneva Initiative in 2003.

Carter explores both answers in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a book written for a general audience, with nine clear maps and seven critical documents that provide the reader both visual and textual tools to link the past to the present.

From the 1978 Camp David Accordsthe full text is in the appendixto the present book, Carter has been advocating a comprehensive approach to peace in the entire region. And he has been studiously committed to the needs of both Israel and Palestine. He offers the 2003 Geneva Initiative as a model of conflict resolution that both communities can live with. Live with. Not a bad option. Everybody in Israel and Palestine received a copy of the document in the mail. It stirred both robust debate and broad acceptance. A vast majority (about 70 percent) of Israelis and Palestinians tell opinion researchers that they want to do what Jimmy Carter proposes in this book: exchange land for peace, with genuine security for Israelis and real freedom for Palestinians.

Early on in the book Carter states his bottom line in three points: 1. Israel’s right to exist within recognizable bordersand to live in peacemust be accepted by Palestinians and all other neighbors; 2. The killing of noncombatants in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon by bombs, missile attacks, assassinations or other acts of violence cannot be condoned; and 3. Palestinians must live in peace and dignity on their own land as specified by international law unless modified by good-faith negotiations with Israel. None of these points is optional. All are essential.

After many visits to the West Bankno other U.S. president has been there as frequentlyCarter identifies policies that he finds troubling: denial of building permits to Palestinians on their own land and subsequent demolition of homes built without a permit; and the taking of substantial portions of the occupied territory, with the remaining Palestinians completely surrounded by walls, fences, and Israeli checkpoints, living as prisoners within the small portion of land left to them.

The most intense controversy whirling about the book concerns the A-word in the subtitle. Late in the book Carter states his conclusion that the situation in the occupied territories can only be described candidly as follows: a system of apartheid, with two people occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.

Why this provocative term? First, it should be noted that Carter limits the term apartheid to conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. He still believesas he did at the time of his first visit to Israel in 1973that Israelis are committed to justice and peace within the Green Line, or armistice line of 1949. Second, although he uses a term that may be shocking to American ears, it is familiar to Israelis and Palestinians who have been debatingheatedlythe utility and wisdom of the occupation for years. Thus Carter cites an unnamed prominent Israeli to this effect: I am afraid that we are moving toward a government like that of South Africa, with a dual society of Jewish rulers and Arab subjects with few rights of citizenship. The West Bank is not worth it.

Carter does not identify his source. Lest this point become a red herring, let me identify by name an Israeli, Michael Ben-Yair, who in 2002 wrote that Israel...

enthusiastically chose [after the Six-Day War in 1967] to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities. Passionately desiring to keep the occupied territories, we developed two judicial systems: one (progressive, liberal) in Israel; and the other (cruel, injurious) in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. This oppressive regime exists to this day.

Harsh words? Well, yes. But chosen to name what Ben-Yair calls a harsh reality. Before rushing to condemn Ben-Yair as an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew, one should know that he was the attorney general of Israel from 1993 to 1996.

Carter could have spared himself much trouble by using a vaguer term like injustice. Or he could have reminded us that American Jews like Abraham Joshua Heschel were in the front line with Martin Luther King Jr. to confront the U.S. form of apartheid that gripped this country from Atlanta to Boston and from Birmingham to Chicago. Or that noble Jews in South Africa stood with Desmond Tutu to bring down the Dutch settler regime that gave racism its most familiar and most dreaded name. Or that countless Jews in Israel and around the world havewith courage, creativity and persistencebeen demanding peace and reconciliation with their Semitic cousins, the Palestinians. Put this way, the regime of occupation excoriated by Michael Ben-Yair as oppressive may also be criticizedin the language of Rabbi Heschel’s famous telegram to President Kennedy in 1963for failing to measure up to the high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity required of Jews and Gentiles in any time of racial oppression. That is why Carter put the word Not before Apartheid in the title.

The A-word, however softened by contextualization or careful distinction, is able to raise awareness of realities in the West Bank and Gaza among those who have never seen these realities with their own eyes or read about them in Israeli or Palestinian newspapers. The ensuing debate over this word illustrates that it has power as a wake-up call.

Some politicians attacked Carter for the title of the book before it was released. When one actually reads the book, one finds things to quarrel with. But to omit reading the book because of its title is to miss an opportunity to rethink an old problem. Some pundits have even tarred Carter as an anti-Semite. This attack cannot be squared with Carter’s tireless efforts to protect the vital interests of Israel, to promote democracy in the region and to listen intently to the real needs and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.

Carter pulls no punches with either side when they cling to positions that work against the peace and security that both sides deserve. Thus Carter has always maintained that the Israeli settlements on occupied landthere are now over 200 in the West Bankare obstacles to the peace. And he has always emphasized that Palestinian attacks on civilians are morally reprehensible and politically counterproductive. One way or the other, as moralist or pragmatist, Carter has used his bully pulpit to clarify for Israelis and Palestinians what he finds untenable. The current administration will not let Carter speak with the leaders of Hamas. If he did, the former president would not mince words about their need to change their attitude about recognition of Israel, a matter crystal clear in the Camp David Accords and in this book.

The book has its flaws. Carter’s autobiographical style, for example, gives us an inside glimpse into events in which he took part; but it results in an abbreviated version of a complex dual narrative. Neither society, Israeli or Palestinian, will find in this book a robust account of its deepest desires and most painful setbacks. But Carter is not defending a Ph.D. dissertation or going up for tenure. He is pleading with us to heed the very dangerous signs of the times. He is issuing a cri de coeur to take prudent action before it is too late.

Postponing the unfinished business of the Camp David Accords has had disastrous results for both Israelis and Palestinians. Neither a new Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the dispossession and forced exile of approximately 750,000 Palestinians in 1948) nor another outburst of anti-Israeli violenceboth of which are stark possibilities if laissez-faire or double standards continue to prevailshould be tolerated under any sane moral analysis. Both of these terrible possibilities are avoidable, but only if all the partiesprimarily Israel and Palestine, but also the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nationsheed the clear warnings of people like Jimmy Carter. For laying out his views, Carter has been attacked by apologists for the status quo. For this very reason, his book deserves careful attention by a wide readership.

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