CARTER’S ‘PALESTINE’: Badly Flawed with a Large Kernel of Truth

Categories: Israel

As Published in Israel Horizons, Meretz USA Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2007

President Jimmy Carter advocates many of the same constructive policies endorsed by moderates on the Zionist left and center in Israel and the American Jewish community: a negotiated Palestinian-Israeli peace under the rubric of the Road Map and the Geneva Initiative, two states for two peoples, an end to the expansion of settlements and the occupation of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, his book is replete with major errors of fact, all systematically biased against Israel. Although Carter himself is no Israel hater, at times he does an uncanny impersonation of one, unfailingly showing deep sympathy for Palestinian perceptions, while displaying little understanding for Israeli attitudes or needs.

Apartheid and Separation Barrier

Before reviewing Carter’s troubling errors, we must give the former president his due. Even with his biases and blunders, Carter unearths a moral truth that many Jews find difficult to face. Carter describes Israel’s 40-year occupation of several million Palestinians in the West Bank as a form of “apartheid.” Despite Carter’s insistence that Israel within the Green Line is a liberal democracy, his use of this word has provoked outrage in the American Jewish community.

Yet many Israelis and American Jews recognize Carter’s kernel of truth. It was, after all, Israel’s own Ehud Olmert, while still Sharon’s deputy prime minister, who warned in 2003 that within a few years Jews risked becoming a minority controlling an Arab majority in the land between the Jordan and the sea. If Israel did not soon leave much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it would be forced to choose between remaining a Jewish state and a democracy. Eventually, Ariel Sharon himself grudgingly endorsed this view.

Carter concedes some of the salient differences between South African apartheid and what he terms Israel’s “abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories, with a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine’s citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” He understands that “apartheid in Palestine is not based on racism but the desire of a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land and the resulting suppression of protests that involve violence.”

But Carter’s analogy breaks down in his claim that Israel is constructing an “encircling barrier,” a “segregation wall,”by which it is imposing on the Palestinians a “forced separation” into “Bantustans.” For Carter, this separation recalls the original meaning of the term apartheid – which literally means “apartness” in Afrikaans – segregation, domination and disenfranchisement. Carter writes that “the area along the Jordan River … is now planned as the eastern leg of the [Israeli] encirclement of the Palestinians….” Yet this proposal to build an “eastern fence” was unceremoniously discarded by Israel some years ago, as reported widely in the Israeli and international media. Still, Carter contends that the eastern barrier is an operative plan. He even includes a map entitled “Palestinians Surrounded 2006” which depicts the fictitious “Proposed Segregation Wall” along the Jordan River, and a vast swath of the Jordan Valley which he labels “Area of Planned Israeli Settlement Control.”

Carter regards all Israeli withdrawal plans from the West Bank that are not total as evidence of bad faith. He overlooks the fact that Olmert is not proposing to withdraw from only 40-50 percent of the West Bank and to annex the rest, as Sharon did. The barrier’s present route places some 9.5 percent of the West Bank on the Israeli side, leaving over 90 percent on the Palestinian side.
Carter misrepresents American jurist Thomas Buergenthal’s opinion on the International Court’s ruling against Israel’s separation barrier, claiming that his dissent was based largely on “procedural grounds.” In fact, Buergenthal objected to the Court’s denial of Israel’s right to take action in defense of its citizens.

Doug Cassel, director of the Center for International Human Rights at the Northwestern University School of Law, among other legal experts, regarded the decision as “one-sided and imbalanced,” noting that it “virtually ignores the terrorist attacks on Israel, which led to the construction of the barrier.” According to Cassel, the Court’s “lack of evenhandedness prompted protests by four of the 15 judges – from Britain, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States.” And its ruling ran counter to the spirit of the resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on Israel’s barrier, which called on the Palestinian Authority “to undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt and restrain” terrorist individuals and groups, and confirmed the right of all states, including Israel, “to counter deadly acts of violence against the civilian population.”

International Law

Carter often cites international law as a basis for a just peace. But on this conflict, he cites international law only when it serves his argument, casting it aside when it doesn’t. Carter lumps together Israel’s attacks on terrorists with acts of terror against Israeli civilians: “The killing of noncombatants in Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon by bombs, missile attacks, assassinations, or other acts of violence cannot be condoned.” These words fail to distinguish ticking bombs and civilians taking part in hostilities — like launch squads in Gaza or Lebanon preparing to fire rockets into Israel, guerrillas who have lost their civilian noncombatant immunity under international law — from Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli civilians who do not participate in combat and thereby qualify for protection. Article 51(3) of the 1977 Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention is clear: “Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this section, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”

Carter further conflates the unintended deaths of noncombatant civilians, permitted under the laws of war if the combatant is making reasonable efforts not to harm them, with deliberately targeting civilians with the aim of maximizing harm, as Palestinian suicide bombers and rocket squads always intend.

Despite his record as a humanitarian and an advocate of peace, Carter does not call for an unconditional end to Palestinian “suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism.” Instead he says that “It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel.”

To be sure, Carter does condemn suicide bombings as morally reprehensible and politically counterproductive for the Palestinians. But he is not prepared to demand a cessation of such heinous acts, which are war crimes, until Israel ends its own violations. Carter’s position is at variance with the laws of war, which do not permit one party to commit war crimes on the grounds that the other party is already committing them, or in response to political injustice. Under international humanitarian law, both sides have an independent and unconditional duty to obey the laws of war.

Blame Israel Only

In his concluding summary, he states that “there are two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace in the Middle East” – as if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were the only source of conflict in the entire region:
“1. Some Israelis believe they have the right to confiscate and colonize Palestinian land and try to justify the sustained subjugation and persecution of increasingly hopeless and aggravated Palestinians; and
2. Some Palestinians react by honoring suicide bombers as martyrs to be rewarded in heaven and consider the killing of Israelis as victories.
In turn Israel responds with retribution and oppression, and militant Palestinians refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel and vow to destroy the nation.”

Israel’s occupation, in Carter eyes, is the primary cause of the conflict, and Palestinian suicide bombings are simply a reaction to Israeli injustice. Indeed, Carter says outright that “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.”

But Palestinian rejectionism preceded Israel’s occupation and is an independent cause of the conflict. Such violent rejectionism will not evaporate when the occupation ends, but it would be easier to combat if the moderates have won the day.

There are also errors of omission in Carter’s book, which are invariably biased against Israel. For example, Carter’s chronology omits any mention of the firing of more than 600 rockets by Palestinian militants into southern Israel during the months between Israel’s Gaza disengagement and the abduction of Gilad Shalit.

Carter says that “the Palestinians have accepted the Road Map in its entirety, but the Israeli government announced fourteen caveats and prerequisites, some of which would preclude any final peace talks.” I agree with Carter that Israel’s objections to the Road Map were intended to prevent its implementation so that Sharon could proceed with his unilateral plans. Still, the Palestinians also had major objections to the Road Map and have completely failed to live up to its most central near-term requirement on their conduct: making a sustained effort to disarm terror groups and enforce a truce.

As the US has stated many times, both sides are obliged to fulfill their commitments under the Road Map regardless of the performance of the other. Israel must dismantle the illegal West Bank settlement outposts regardless of whether the Palestinians have disarmed the terror groups, and the Palestinians cannot use Israel’s failure to take serious action against the outposts as an excuse for inaction in fulfilling their security obligations.

Clinton, Hamas, Oslo

Carter claims that Barak gave “no clear response” to President Clinton’s “final proposal,” “but he later stated that Israel had twenty pages of reservations. President Arafat rejected the proposal” —a position which Carter justifies on the grounds that “no Palestinian leader could accept such terms and survive.”

Yossi Beilin served in Barak’s cabinet at the time. Beilin reports that “On December 28 [2000], at a meeting of the government, the [Clinton] plan was endorsed in principle together with permission to send reservations that had not been presented to the government for endorsement…. From that moment, the Clinton Plan embodied Israel’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.” (From “The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Agreement 1996-2004,” p. 223.) Ross reports this as well in his memoir, “The Missing Peace” (pp. 754-5), as does Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s foreign minister at the time (see his “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy,” p. 272). Ross adds that Israel’s reservations were “within the [Clinton] parameters, not outside them.”

Carter, who should know better from his experience as a mediator, ignores the fact that Clinton never asked Arafat or Barak to accept his plan unconditionally. Arafat was not obliged to accept its terms and risk his survival, as Carter suggests, misappropriating a line Arafat used at Camp David about an earlier proposal. In December 2000, Clinton simply asked both leaders to accept his plan as a basis for further negotiations towards a peace treaty. The Israeli government agreed to continue negotiating within Clinton’s parameters.

Carter claims that the famous Palestinian Prisoners’ National Reconciliation Document “endorsed a two-state proposal.” He says that “the prisoners’ proposal called for…acceptance of Israel as a neighbor within its legal borders. It endorsed the key UN resolutions regarding legal borders….” But it did not even mention Israel let alone recognize it or endorse UN Resolution 242 or the Arab League peace proposal. Carter ignores Hamas’s repeated denials that its willingness to accept a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, as called for in this document, constituted a readiness for peace with Israel.

Here is the Americans for Peace Now’s analysis of the prisoners’ document on this crucial point: “… in the introduction of the revised document—which the paper says must be considered as part of the whole initiative—it is stated that the document is being put forth ‘on the basis of no recognition of the legitimacy of occupation.’ Given that Hamas has considered all of Israel to be occupied territory, in addition to the West Bank and Gaza, it’s unclear that the moderates have achieved any sort of compromise on this matter from Hamas.’ Indeed, one Hamas legislator, Salah al-Bardawil, told Reuters, ‘We said we accept a state in 1967 — but we did not say we accept two states.’….”

Another misrepresentation is Carter’s belief that “Withdrawal to the 1967 border [is] specified in UN Resolution 242 and …promised in the Camp David Accords and the Olso Agreement and prescribed in the Roadmap of the International Quartet.” Again, this is a misreading of key documents. It is widely known that UN Resolution 242 omitted the definite article in its English version, referring to “occupied territories” so as not to dictate Israel’s complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders in exchange for peace. Moreover, the resolution called for an eventual Israeli withdrawal to “secure and recognized borders” in exchange for peace, which would be the outcome of negotiations, not simply a restoration of the pre-war status quo ante.

The Oslo Accords actually say nothing about what the final borders will be, and the Road Map’s call for a final peace treaty that will “end the occupation which began in 1967” does not mean that the withdrawal will be to the 1967 boundaries. In a final peace accord in which the parties define the final borders, they will agree that the occupation which began in 1967 has ended.

These borders will not be identical to the 1967 lines and Carter knows this. He talks of “mutually agreeable exchanges of land, perhaps permitting significant numbers of Israeli settlers to remain in their present homes near Jerusalem.” He’s not wrong on the big picture — the 1967 borders must be the basis for a negotiated land swap — but he fudges important details.

The book concludes with his recurrent blame-Israel-only refrain: “Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law, with the Roadmap for Peace, with official American policy, with the wishes of a majority of its own citizens — and honor its own previous commitments — by accepting its legal borders.” After Israel concurs, then “all Arab neighbors must pledge to honor Israel’s right to live in peace under these conditions” and issue a firm “pledge to terminate any acts of violence against the legally constituted nation of Israel.”

The onus to make peace falls solely on Israel. Palestinians, for Carter, bear no share of responsibility for forging the conditions necessary for successful peacemaking.                       

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