Correction to This Article
A Dec. 10 Style article about former president Jimmy Carter incorrectly said that the nation was introduced to gas lines during his administration. A few years earlier, there were gasoline shortages during the Nixon administration.
Page 5 of 5   <      

Peace Provocateur

"Palestine Peace Not Apartheid," the latest book from the former president and Habitat for Humanity booster, has triggered angry reactions in some quarters for the title alone. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

Palestine:

He's not talking about Israel itself, where Arabs have the same citizenship rights as anyone else. He's talking about what's happening in the occupied territories: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Peace:

It's what he hopes for; it's why he wrote the book.

Not Apartheid:

But there can be no peace, in Carter's view, when Palestinians are "deprived of basic human rights," their land "occupied and then confiscated and then colonized by the Israeli settlers." A system of required passes for Palestinians; a network of roads they mostly can't use and often can't even cross; security barriers being constructed, on Palestinian land, to segregate the peoples -- are all part of Carter's apartheid charge.

Summing up, he writes that there are "two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace": the belief of some Israelis that they have the right to land in the occupied territories and the belief of some Palestinians that suicide bombing is a proper counterargument.

Carter's own solution is hardly new: He favors an independent Palestinian state, which involves Israel withdrawing to its 1967 border and all neighboring Arab states accepting its right to exist in peace.

So far so good, if your politics lean in Carter's direction. But even for those who don't instantly reject the comparison to South Africa, there's still an obvious flaw in his analogy that he continually must address. The word "apartheid" implies racism as a motivation -- yet Carter insists he's not talking about race.

One hundred eighty-nine pages into a 264-page book, he writes that the "driving purpose for the forced separation" of Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied territories is "not racism, but the acquisition of land." What he calls "apartheid," he explained to Russert, "is not based on racism, it's based on the desire by a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land."

This rhetorical move infuriates those unsympathetic to Carter's argument.

"This is a cynical book, its cynicism embedded in its bait-and-switch title," writes New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, in a review that appears in The Post's Book World section today. Goldberg goes on to criticize Carter for, among other things, writing about Israel's security fence as part of a land grab without underlining its more obvious purpose: "to prevent the murder of Jews."

Even some close to Carter have questioned his word choice. "I certainly raised it with him," historian Hochman says. "I think with a less provocative title, people would have come to the book more open to the arguments he made."

It can seem hard to argue with this point. To take just one example: If you Google "Jimmy Carter, go back to your peanut farm" you'll pull up an angry Jerusalem Post rebuttal of the apartheid charge. It's written by precisely the kind of Israeli -- human rights activist David Forman, who opposes the occupation -- you'd think might be sympathetic to Carter's views.

And yet . . . In a blog entry otherwise quite critical of Carter, Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writes: "There is enough material evidence to prove that apartheid exists in the occupied territories in one form or another. If you argue about the use of this word, you lose. If you argue that Israel is blameless you also lose."

This reinforces a point Carter often makes: It's far more common to hear the behavior of the Israeli government debated in Israel than it is here.

He makes another point, when asked, about America's own apartheid years.

The term has often been applied to the segregated South in which Carter was raised. In his mind, "there's an interrelationship between what's happening to the Palestinians and what happened to black people under segregation," and that connection has long influenced his thinking.

To listen to Carter talk about the Middle East, however, is also to hear repeated echoes of the climactic moment in 1978 that has shaped his views more than anything else.

That would be the signing of the Camp David accords -- the peak experience of his public life -- which few would argue could have happened without his forceful engagement. Camp David resolved the differences between Israel and its most powerful Arab foe, which had come close enough to military victory five years earlier to underscore Israel's continued vulnerability.

"When I went out of office, I felt that I had accomplished a major goal of my life, which was to guarantee Israel peace," Carter says.

But he also thought the region could be headed for a broader peace. Part of the Camp David deal -- a part Carter had pushed hard for -- was that the Israelis agreed to a "withdrawal from the occupied territories." It didn't happen.

Conflicting explanations fill volumes, but Carter is strongly inclined to blame the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whose arm he'd twisted hard at Camp David, but who, in Carter's view, "didn't keep his promises."

And here comes the shadow of 1980, one more time.

Granted, Begin may never have wanted to withdraw in the first place. Granted, it was never going to be easy to get the Palestinian situation resolved. But surely Carter had been assuming that he could keep the pressure on -- that he could build on Camp David during his second term.

"Of course. I could have," Jimmy Carter says.


<                5

© 2006 The Washington Post Company