By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
WALTHAM, Mass., Jan. 23 -- Former president Jimmy Carter flew north to Brandeis University to speak on Tuesday of his hurt at the personal attacks by some American Jews that followed publication of his latest book, "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid," which urges Israel to turn away from a policy of creating "Bantustans" on the West Bank.
"This is the first time that I've ever been called a liar and a bigot and an anti-Semite and a coward and a plagiarist." Carter paused and squinted at the audience. "This has hurt me."
At the same time, he acknowledged, with a flash of his trademark smile, that he did not simply stumble into the title of his new book. "I can see it would precipitate some harsh feelings. I chose that title knowing that it would be provocative."
Provocative mission accomplished.
Carter, who won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize partly for brokering peace between Israel and Egypt in 1998, has a long history of involvement in the Middle East. But the former president has encountered much criticism since the publication of his latest book, in which his frustration with the current Israeli policy in the West Bank is palpable. In particular, he has attracted much anger for his use of the word "apartheid," redolent as it is of South Africa's policy of state-sanctioned racism.
Fourteen members of the board of the Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta recently resigned in protest, and several expressed particular disappointment with the use of the word "apartheid."
Carter did not step back from the word Tuesday. He noted that he and his successors, notably Bill Clinton, have tried and failed to nudge the Palestinians and Israelis toward a lasting peace. The last six years, he said, have been marked by failure on all sides. The administration of George W. Bush all but abandoned such efforts, putting the onus on the Palestinians to turn their back on PLO leaders and now the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas leadership. And the Israelis, too, have all but abandoned negotiation, he said, turning instead to the building of walls.
Carter spoke of Israeli's decision to build barriers and set aside certain highways for Israelis only as creating a "spider web" that constricts and divides historic Arab lands. The West Bank, he said, has become a place of "Bantustans, isolated cantons," referring to the territories created for black South Africans under apartheid. He noted that many liberal Israelis, from newspaper journalists to professors to peace activists, also refer to Israeli policy on the West Bank as apartheid, albeit a policy grounded not in racism but in a religion-based desire to control land.
Israelis "have all used and explained the word 'apartheid' in much harsher words than mine," Carter said.
The Israeli government and others have defended the barriers as a successful tool to prevent suicide bombings against civilians. Fatalities from such bombings have fallen by 90 percent since the construction of the barriers, according to government officials.
Carter referred several times to the fact that his arguments might stir anger in a largely Jewish audience. But the former president received a mostly polite reception at Brandeis, a nonsectarian college founded by Jews where 50 percent of the students are Jewish. Students and faculty gave him a standing ovation at the beginning and end of his talk. But in between he received a number of tough questions. As a moderator noted, "There are not too many matzoh balls coming your way."
In particular, some students challenged Carter on a sentence that has brought him much grief. On Page 213 of his book, Carter wrote: "It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel."
This sentence, the students noted, suggests that suicide bombings are a tactic of war, to be suspended only when peace is achieved. Carter agreed -- and apologized -- and said this sentence was a great mistake on his part.
"The sentence was worded in an absolutely improper and stupid way," Carter said. "I apologize to you and to everyone here . . . it was a mistake on my part."
He added that Palestinians who embrace terrorism draw no support from him. Calls for the destruction of Israel, he said, "are completely obnoxious to me. I would have no brief for them and no sympathy for them."
But Carter insisted that one botched line in his book should not drain his larger argument of its power. He urged Brandeis to send a delegation of students and professors to the West Bank and to report back on their findings. "You decide if I was accurate," he said, leaving little doubt as to what he thought they would find.
It was an argument that left more than a few students shaking their heads afterward. They said Carter is not quite so rare a voice on college campuses as he might imagine. They said they were familiar with his arguments and acknowledge some of the criticisms of Israel.
Yuval Brokman, a 20-year-old junior majoring in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, said, "He underestimates how hard it is for Israel to live in that part of the world. It's ridiculous to think that they have a choice. The Palestinian people have been oppressed more by their own leaders."