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Taking Exception

What President Jimmy Carter Missed in His Op-Ed on the Middle East

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By Elliott Abrams
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In an op-ed on Sunday ["The Elders' View of the Middle East"], former president Jimmy Carter, speaking on behalf of a self-appointed group of "Elders," described a rapacious Israel facing long-suffering, blameless Palestinians, who are contemplating a "nonviolent civil rights struggle" in which "their examples would be Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela."

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As with most of Carter's recent statements about Israel and the Palestinians, instead of facts we get vignettes from recent Carter travels. And while he finds "a growing sense of concern and despair" among "increasingly desperate" Palestinians, polls do not sustain this view. The most recent survey by the leading Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki (done in August, the same month Carter visited), shows "considerable improvement in public perception of personal and family security and safety in the West Bank and a noticeable decrease in public perception of the existence of corruption in [Palestinian Authority] institutions." This does not sound like despair. In fact, positive views of personal and family safety and security in the West Bank stood at 25 percent four years ago, 35 percent two years ago and 43 percent a year ago, and they have risen to 58 percent in the past year, Shikaki reports. There are other ways to measure quality of life in the West Bank: The International Monetary Fund recently stated that "macroeconomic conditions in the West Bank have improved" largely because "Israeli restrictions on internal trade and the passage of people have been relaxed significantly."

The IMF predicts that "continuation of the relaxation of restrictions could result in real GDP growth of 7% for 2009 as a whole," a rate of growth that would be far in excess of ours -- or Israel's.

Carter's efforts to portray life among the Palestinians as unbearable and getting worse are belied by data. His efforts to blame Israel for all the problems that do exist are equally unpersuasive, and the best example is Gaza.

Carter states that Gaza is a "walled-in ghetto" and that "Israel prevents any cement, lumber, seeds, fertilizer and hundreds of other needed materials from entering through Gaza's gates." But Gaza is not an enclave surrounded by Israel; it has a border with Egypt. Every commodity that Carter says is needed can be supplied by Egypt, a point he overlooks in his efforts to blame Palestinian problems exclusively on the Jewish state.

Similarly, he says that "[s]ome additional goods from Egypt reach Gaza through underground tunnels," phrasing that suggests the "additional goods" may help reduce shortages. In fact, they include missiles and rockets, thousands of which have been fired into Israel since its troops left Gaza in 2005. While Carter warns that a Palestinian "civil rights struggle" is in the offing, he says nothing about Palestinian violence in the real world -- in which Palestinian terrorist groups continue to attack Israel and where all of Gaza is, of course, in the hands of one such group, Hamas.

Carter claims that the expansion of Israeli settlements is "rapidly" taking Palestinian land. Yet four years ago Israel gave up the Gaza Strip and all the settlements there (plus four small West Bank settlements); moreover, Carter presents no data suggesting that Israel's West Bank settlements are actually expanding physically. Their population is growing, but new construction is almost all "up and in," meaning that the impact on Palestinians is limited -- and that the picture Carter paints of a rapidly disappearing Palestine is inaccurate.

Most inaccurate of all, and most bizarre, is Carter's claim that "a total freeze of settlement expansion is the key" to a peace agreement. Not a halt to terrorism, not the building of Palestinian institutions, not the rule of law in the West Bank, not the end of Hamas rule in Gaza -- no, the sole "key" is Israeli settlements. Such a conclusion fits with Carter's general approach, in which there are no real Palestinians, just victims of Israel. The century of struggle between moderate and radical Palestinians, and the victories of terrorists from Haj Amin al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat, are forgotten; the Hamas coup in Gaza is unmentioned; indeed the words "Hamas" and "terrorism" do not appear in Carter's column. Instead of appealing for support for the serious and practical work of institution-building that the Palestinian Authority has begun, Carter fantasizes about a "nonviolent civil rights struggle" that bears no relationship to the terrorist violence that has plagued Palestinian society, and killed Israelis, for decades. Carter's portrait demonizes Israelis and, not coincidentally, it infantilizes Palestinians, who are accorded no real responsibility for their fate or future. If this is "the Elders' view of the Middle East," we and our friends in that region are fortunate that this group of former officials is no longer in power.

The writer, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.


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