Home Page

President Jimmy Carter: a different view

By Harriet Feinberg, The Justice Online. 23.01.07

Palestine: Peace not Apartheid was not written in a historical vacuum. It should be viewed in the context of the decades-long complicated relationship between former President Jimmy Carter and the Jewish community. A constant in the relationship has been Carter's criticism of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. As historian Tom Segev pointed out on Dec. 15 in Ha'aretz, Carter has good reason for his continual harping on the settlements. The removal of Israeli political and military forces from the areas occupied in 1967 was a part of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt which Carter negotiated when he was president. The Accords led to the 1979 peace treaty between the two nations, which is still in effect. Carter still feels, rightly or wrongly, that if the Camp David Accords had been fully implemented, the Middle East would look very different today.

Despite his extraordinary achievement of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and his warm ties with some important Israeli leaders, Carter has often been viewed with suspicion by Israeli officials and by many Jewish leaders and spokespersons in the United States because of his criticism of the settlements, his sympathy for Palestinians, and his many high-level contacts in the Arab world. These contacts are viewed as negative, though assuredly were it not for Carter's close friendship with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, there would have been no peace treaty with Egypt. His ongoing interaction with Israeli and American peace activists of all stripes has not made him more popular at the top.

I believe that the roller-coaster of events connected with the 2003 Geneva Initiative affected Carter deeply. For well over a year he had been involved in monitoring secret, unofficial negotiations between a team of Israelis and a team of Palestinians. The document they produced burst upon a surprised world in October 2003. The Initiative proposed specific solutions to deeply contested issues such as borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. Though this model peace agreement was completely unofficial, it had the potential to be significant. At the Dec. 1 signing in Geneva , welcomed by a crowd of over 300 hopeful Jews and Palestinians and accompanied by a range of world leaders and dignitaries, Carter gave the keynote address.

Subsequently thousands of Israelis and American Jews actively promoted the Geneva Initiative as a step towards a full-scale two-state negotiated settlement. Yet the Israeli government and many American Jewish spokespersons pooh-poohed not only the document but also the whole Geneva process, and some specifically badmouthed Carter for his role. Columnist Charles Krauthammer called Carter one of a "chorus of delusionals." ADL Executive Director Abraham Foxman wrote that Carter's speech placed too much blame on Israel and was "troubling," "not helpful." He must have felt exasperated with the Israeli and American Jewish leaders who summarily and often angrily dismissed the Geneva efforts which he had helped nurture.

More blows rained down on Carter during the 2004 presidential campaign after John Kerry, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, said that if elected he might select Jimmy Carter, James Baker, or Bill Clinton as a special envoy to the Middle East. A firestorm of criticism from Jewish leaders to the effect that Carter and Baker were unacceptable to Jewish voters forced Kerry to backpedal.

Carter accepted an invitation from Simon and Schuster to write a book about the Middle East. While he was at work on the manuscript, the Carter Center monitored the 2005 and 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Carter, who was present as an observer, had an intimate look at the Palestinians' problems of daily living under Israeli occupation, while having no parallel or even recent experience of daily life in Israel. Palestine: Peace not Apartheid was completed against the background of the Israel-Lebanon war and its aftermath.

I wish that Carter had not used 'apartheid' in his title because the inflammatory word prevents many Jews who share his concerns about Palestinian human rights from openly identifying with his position, and because many rank-and-file Jews who might otherwise have been curious about his opinion won't open the book. But its deliberate use serves as a measure of his current willingness to shock and offend in order to convey the gravity of the problem.

A bit of dark humor that I remember from years ago is this definition of chutzpah: A man who kills his parents and then says "have pity, I'm an orphan." Sadly, this scenario fits what has happened with Carter: We Jews have taken a gentle man who cared deeply and equally about Israel and about the Palestinians and who sought a reasonable and just political solution, and have gradually driven him away, then complained he wasn't with us. Many Israeli and US Jewish leaders who pride themselves on looking out for Israel's welfare have rebuffed Carter not only by supporting the opposite of what he counseled but by comments ranging from dismissive to insulting.

Hence it is not surprising that his new book evinces a certain coldness toward Israel and a tendency to blame. Yet community leaders who are now up in arms about the book aren't taking any responsibility for that result. Might I suggest that a number of Jewish leaders here and in Israel contemplate engaging in Teshuvah (repentance) for how shabbily they have treated Carter.

Meanwhile, Carter in his post-presidential years has gone from strength to strength and has become a near-reverential figure to millions in the United States and around the world because of his involvement with Habitat for Humanity and because of the Carter Center's impressive international work in human rights, health and education.

Get a grip, folks. Israel has real enemies. Jimmy Carter is not an enemy. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are not enemies. Critics should not be automatically treated as adversaries. Now, twenty-seven years after Camp David , there are no good solutions to the West Bank situation, only some that are not as bad as others. Was Carter so wrong?

I find it poignant that in his recent open letter to the American Jewish community, Carter writes that the "high point" of his highly successful book tour was a meeting with representatives of the Board of Rabbis in Phoenix who had been planning to demonstrate against the book.

To those Phoenix rabbis who later expressed disappointment about their meeting with Carter I say: Consider feeling disappointed with those who helped create the absurd situation in which you, whose people were victims of the worst genocide in history, were ready to demonstrate against one of the world's most respected and revered advocates of human rights. Shouldn't Jews and Carter be on the same side?

To me Jimmy Carter's use of "high point" suggests that Carter still seeks a close relationship with israel and with the American Jewish community, a relationship of caring chastisement. This is the connection I believe he has long wished to have.

Think how different these last few difficult decades would have been for an increasingly isolated, embattled Israel if the nation had had Carter at its side as an active friend. Given his huge presence as a human rights advocate all over the world, he could have used his relationships with Arab leaders and Third World countries to create openings for Israel to interact in positive ways, while firmly nudging Israeli and Palestinian leaders on mutually beneficial strategies.

Carter is eighty-two. He could be pursuing non-controversial good works and basking in acclaim. Instead he has waded once more into the fray at his heart's center. Can Israel and the whole Jewish people ever accept him as the "tough love" friend he has wanted to be?

The writer is an educator who has taught English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.