PALESTINE PEACE NOT APARTHEID
By Jimmy Carter
Publisher Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0743285026, 264 pages, $27
Reviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg
Jimmy Carter tells a strange and revealing story near the beginning of his
latest book, the sensationally titled "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid." It is a
story that suggests that the former president's hostility to Israel is, to
borrow a term, faith-based.
On his first visit to the Jewish state in the early 1970s, Carter, who was then
still the governor of Georgia, met with Prime Minister Golda Meir, who asked
Carter to share his observations about his visit. Such a mistake she never made.
"With some hesitation," Carter writes, "I said that I had long taught lessons
from the Hebrew Scriptures and that a common historical pattern was that Israel
was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God. I
asked if she was concerned about the secular nature of her Labor government."
Jews, in my experience, tend to become peevish when Christians, their
traditional persecutors, lecture them on morality, and Carter reports that Meir
was taken aback by his "temerity." He is, of course, paying himself a
compliment. Temerity is mandatory when you are doing God's work, and Carter
makes it clear in this polemical book that, in excoriating Israel for its sins
-- and he blames Israel almost entirely for perpetuating the hundred-year war
between Arab and Jew -- he is on a mission from God.
Carter's interest in the Middle East is longstanding, of course; he brokered the
first Arab-Israeli peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and he has
been rightly praised for doing so. But other aspects of his record are more
bothersome. Carter, not unlike God, has long been disproportionately interested
in the sins of the Chosen People. He is famously a partisan of the Palestinians,
and in recent months he has offered a notably benign view of Hamas, the Islamist
terrorist organization that took power in the Palestinian territories after
winning a January round of parliamentary elections.
There are differences, however, between Carter's understanding of Jewish sin and
God's. God, according to the Jewish Bible, tends to forgive the Jews their sins.
And God, unlike Carter, does not manufacture sins to hang around the necks of
Jews when no sins have actually been committed.
This is a cynical book, its cynicism embedded in its bait-and-switch title. Much
of the book consists of an argument against the barrier that Israel is building
to separate Israelis from the Palestinians on the West Bank. The "imprisonment
wall" is an early symptom of Israel's descent into apartheid, according to
Carter. But late in the book, he concedes that, "The driving purpose for the
forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa -- not
racism, but the acquisition of land."
In other words, Carter's title notwithstanding, Israel is not actually an
apartheid state. True, some Israeli leaders have used the security fence as
cover for a land-grab, but Carter does not acknowledge the actual raison d'etre
for the fence: to prevent the murder of Jews. The security barrier is a
desperate, deeply imperfect and God-willing-temporary attempt to stop
Palestinian suicide bombers from detonating themselves amid crowds of Israeli
civilians. And it works; many recent attempts to infiltrate bombers into Israel
have failed, thanks to the barrier.
The murder of Israelis, however, plays little role in Carter's understanding of
the conflict. He writes of one Hamas bombing campaign: "Unfortunately for the
peace process, Palestinian terrorists carried out two lethal suicide bombings in
March 1996." That spree of bombings -- four, actually -- was unfortunate for the
peace process, to be sure. It was also unfortunate for the several dozen
civilians killed in these attacks. But Israeli deaths seem to be an abstraction
for Carter; only the peace process is real, and the peace process would succeed,
he claims, if not for Israeli intransigence.
Here is Carter's anti-historical understanding of the conflict. He writes:
"There are two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace in the Middle East:
"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 other words, Palestinian violence is simply an understandable reaction to the
building of Israeli settlements. The settlement movement has been a tragedy, of
course. Settlements, and the expansionist ideology they represent, have done
great damage to the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state; many
Palestinians, and many Israelis, have died on the altar of settlement. The good
news is that the people of Israel have fallen out of love with the settlers, who
themselves now know that they have no future. After all, when Ariel Sharon
abandoned the settlement dream -- as the former prime minister did when he
forcibly removed about 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip during Israel's
unilateral pullout in July 2005 -- even the most myopic among the settlement
movement's leaders came to understand that the end is near.
Carter does not recognize the fact that Israel, tired of the burdens of
occupation, also dearly wants to give up the bulk of its West Bank settlements
(the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was elected on exactly this platform)
because to do so would fatally undermine the thesis of his book. "Palestine
Peace Not Apartheid" is being marketed as a work of history, but an honest book
would, when assessing the reasons why the conflict festers, blame not only the
settlements but also take substantial note of the fact that the Arabs who
surround Israel have launched numerous wars against it, all meant to snuff it
out of existence.
Why is Carter so hard on Israeli settlements and so easy on Arab aggression and
Palestinian terror? Because a specific agenda appears to be at work here. Carter
seems to mean for this book to convince American evangelicals to reconsider
their support for Israel. Evangelical Christians have become bedrock supporters
of Israel lately, and Carter marshals many arguments, most of them specious, to
scare them out of their position. Hence the Golda Meir story, meant to show that
Israel is not the God-fearing nation that religious Christians believe it to be.
And then there are the accusations, unsupported by actual evidence, that Israel
persecutes its Christian citizens. On his fateful first visit to Israel, Carter
takes a tour of the Galilee and writes, "It was especially interesting to visit
with some of the few surviving Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy
sites and culture were not being respected by Israeli authorities -- the same
complaint heard by Jesus and his disciples almost two thousand years earlier."
There are, of course, no references to "Israeli authorities" in the Christian
Bible. Only a man who sees Israel as a lineal descendant of the Pharisees could
write such a sentence. But then again, the security fence itself is a crime
against Christianity, according to Carter; it "ravages many places along its
devious route that are important to Christians." He goes on, "In addition to
enclosing Bethlehem in one of its most notable intrusions, an especially
heartbreaking division is on the southern slope of the Mount of Olives, a
favorite place for Jesus and his disciples." One gets the impression that Carter
believes that Israelis -- in their deviousness -- somehow mean to keep Jesus
from fulfilling the demands of His ministry.
There is another approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, of course -- one
perfected by another Southern Baptist who became a Democratic president. Bill
Clinton's Middle East achievements are enormous, especially when considering the
particular difficulties posed by his primary Arab interlocutor. Jimmy Carter was
blessed with Anwar Sadat as a partner for peace; Bill Clinton was cursed with
Yasser Arafat. In his one-sided explication of the 1990s peace process, Carter
systematically downplays Clinton's efforts to bring a conclusion to the
conflict, with a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side,
and repeatedly defends the indefensible Arafat. Carter doesn't dare include
Clinton's own recollections of his efforts at the abortive Camp David summit in
2000 because to do so would be to acknowledge that the then-Israeli prime
minister, the flawed but courageous Ehud Barak, did, in fact, try to bring about
a lasting peace -- and that Arafat balked.
In a short chapter on the Clinton years, Carter blames the Israelis for the
failures at Camp David. But I put more stock in the views of the president who
was there than in those of the president who wasn't. "On the ninth day, I gave
Arafat my best shot again," Clinton writes in "My Life." "Again he said no.
Israel had gone much further than he had, and he wouldn't even embrace their
moves as the basis for future negotiations." Clinton applied himself heroically
over the next six months to extract even better offers from Israel, all of which
Arafat wouldn't accept. "I still didn't believe Arafat would make such a
colossal mistake," Clinton remembers, with regret. According to Carter, however,
Arafat made no mistakes. The failure was Israel's -- and by extension,
Carter succeeded at his Camp David summit in 1978, while Clinton failed at his
in 2000. But Clinton's achievement was in some ways greater because he did
something no American president has done before (or since): He won the trust of
both the Palestinians and the Israelis. He could do this because he seemed to
believe that neither side was wholly villainous nor wholly innocent. He saw the
Israeli-Palestinian crisis for what it is: a tragic collision between right and
right, a story of two peoples who both deserved his sympathy. In other words, he
took the Christian approach to making peace.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of
"Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide."
Copyright 2006 Washington Post