It’s a remarkable event when the twenty-first book by a former president-and a rather slim and earnest book at that-turns up center stage on America’s news programs and major talk shows, sets off a storm of discussion and critical comment, and even evokes a statement from his party’s just-elected majority leader in the House, distancing congressional colleagues from some of his views.

Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has rattled cages. Larry King characterized it as “maybe the most controversial book he’s ever written.” Tim Russert, on Meet the Press, predicted that the title alone would “create some controversy.” The Washington Post reported on the resignation-in protest-of a Carter Foundation Fellow, Professor Kenneth Stein, and the “bitter debate” the book has sparked. The New York Times cited Michael Kinsley, Alan Dershowitz, and the heads of various Jewish organizations, all objecting to the “racist” implications of Carter’s title and variously blasting the book as misleading, shallow, and outrageous. Full-page ads in the Times soon followed, under screamers like “Peace Can’t Be Built on a Foundation of Lies: Correct Carter’s Falsehoods.” The controversy continues.

Looking fit and younger than his eighty-two years, Carter cheerfully faced down his critics in successive prime-time interviews, rebutting charges and seeming to delight in the prospect of his matter-of-fact book stimulating franker discussion of the Palestinian issue. Such a discussion, Carter believes, has been conspicuously lacking in this country. “Because of powerful political, economic, and religious forces,” he writes in his book, “Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.” In short, Carter argues, there is a strong aversion to criticizing Israel in America, even when, as he said to Tim Russert, Israeli policies “are horribly abusive against the Palestinians and violate human rights.”

But breaking this taboo is not an end in itself for Carter. For decades his central and passionate concern has been the achievement of a just peace among Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel’s other neighbors; a peace that, he stresses, majority populations on all sides of this conflict badly want. As the Iraq Study Group has just reaffirmed, if America is to restore its image in the Muslim world, where our consistently one-sided support of Israel has contributed to rage and terrorism, it is now more necessary than ever that Israel and the Palestinians reach a settlement.

To make his case, Carter interweaves snapshots of the history of the conflict with folksy accounts of his own long and distinguished involvement-first in brokering the 1979 Camp David accords and the Israel-Egyptian peace agreement, and later as a respected observer and peace advocate. He argues that Israel has not kept key commitments and international agreements; that its settlements policy, and the consequent appropriation and “colonization” of large swaths of Palestinian land, have been deeply corrosive to the peace process; and that Palestinian suffering and frustration over the past fifty years, most recently as a result of Israel’s security wall, has been quite disproportionate. Carter buttresses his argument by showing us maps of the West Bank, riddled with Israeli settlements and security zones, and by reminding us of the steeply lopsided numbers of Palestinian and Israeli victims.

What accounts for the intense ire this book has produced is the clear implication that Israel bears the larger blame in the conflict. Carter, of course, deplores Palestinian violence, the honoring of suicide bombers as martyrs, the refusal of some Arabs to accept Israel as a neighbor, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But he concludes bluntly that the “overriding problem is the belief of some Israelis that they have the right to confiscate and colonize Palestinian land” and that, for more than a quarter century, some Israeli actions have, as a result, “been in direct conflict with the official positions of the United States, the international community, and their own negotiated agreements.”

To break the cycle of distrust and violence, Carter calls for much more active-and less partisan-U.S. leadership in reenergizing the peace process on the basis of the International Quartet’s Roadmap for Peace. The security of Israel must be guaranteed, while Israel, for its part, must return to its internationally accepted borders under UN Resolutions 242 and 338, except for mutually agreed corrections. Anything less than these bedrock conditions, Carter stresses, will not produce lasting reconciliation. Recognizing that the electoral victory of Hamas raises new issues, he nevertheless considers the sanctions Israel and the United States have imposed unwise and inhumane. He is fairly confident that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas could effectively negotiate for the Palestinians, if Israel were so inclined. He also believes that a successful agreement, once achieved, would open the door to Arab recognition of Israel as implied in King Abdullah’s Proposal, approved by the Arab Summit in 2002-defusing a major source of tension in the Middle East.

Does Carter’s cri de coeur have a chance? Given the outright rejection of similar Iraq Study Group recommendations by Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the continuing Hamas-Fatah tensions, and the rapid pace at which adverse events are currently unfolding across the Middle East, its prospects seem doubtful. As a recent New York Times editorial noted, Israel is sending mixed signals-Olmert’s sudden meeting with Abbas, for instance (perhaps under White House pressure), accompanied by the almost simultaneous authorization of still another Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The fractious atmosphere could undoubtedly be improved by a prisoner exchange, which in turn might just possibly set the stage for a new try at the peace process-some¬thing the United States badly needs in order to improve its own image and prospects, in the region and elsewhere. Indeed, as columnist and retired CIA officer Haviland Smith has pointed out, if George W. Bush could bring himself to broker a genuinely just Israeli-Palestinian peace in the next two years, he might still salvage his presidency. Carter’s book would then be required presidential reading.

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid has faults and omissions. It does not do full justice to perceptions and fears on the Israeli side, and it is less than thorough in analyzing the motives and behavior of Yasir Arafat and other players. Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, challenges Carter’s suggestion that Arafat was right to walk away from Clinton’s Camp David proposals, which Ross drafted, as perpetuating unhelpful myths. What’s more, the term “apartheid” is ambiguous and, in the present context, perhaps provocative. Carter insists-most recently in his moving “Letter to the Jewish Community,” available on the Carter Center Web site-that he had not meant to impute racism, but that, “like Bishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and prominent Israelis...under both Labor and Likud governments,” he understood apartheid to mean “the forced segregation of two peoples living in the same land, with one of them dominating and persecuting the other.” He uses the term intentionally to underscore the impossibility of achieving peace while Palestinians are penned up in enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank.

Whatever its flaws, Carter’s book is critically important and courageous. Breaking the taboo against frank discussion of Israeli policies, it reminds us that legitimacy must in the end rest on compliance with international agreements and UN resolutions, and reasserts the inherently equal dignity and value of all people-be they Arabs, Palestinians, Jews, or Christians.

As Carter patiently points out to anyone who will listen, peace in this long and painful dispute will be achieved only when the human rights and legitimate needs of all are finally respected. That this much-attacked book has risen to fifth place on the New York Times Best Sellers list suggests that many indeed are listening.

George Jaeger, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served in major U.S. embassies, was staff director of a Presidential Advisory Committee on Disarmament, and chaired NATO’s Political Committee. He was diplomat-in-residence at Middlebury College and continues to lecture and write on foreign affairs.

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Published in the 2007-01-26 issue: View Contents
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