The courage of President

By Linda S. Heard

When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter penned his latest book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” he must have anticipated the storm it would cause. Yet he bravely went ahead and published anyway.

He was certainly aware of the hatchet job the pro-Israel lobby had carried out on two respected university professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in response to their essay “The Israeli Lobby”.

And he must have known about the vilification and sacking of the prominent academic Tony Judt following his essay published in The New York Review of Books calling for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.

But the 82-year-old former leader of the free world and Nobel Laureate was undeterred in his determination to stand up to the counted and was prepared to fend off the brickbats certain to be hurled in his direction.

No-one, let alone Carter, could have imagined he would have been labeled a “thief”, “plagiarist”, “liar”, “coward”, and even an “anti-Semite”. Writing in The New Republic Martin Peretz predicted that Carter would for ever be known as “a Jew-hater”.

Speaking at an American university on January 23, Carter admitted that he was personally hurt by some of the harsh invective.

“I’ve been through political campaigns for state senate and for governor and for president, and I’ve been stigmatized and condemned by my political opponents and their stories. But this is the first time I’ve been called a liar and a bigot and an anti-Semite and a coward and a plagiarist,” he said.

During a recent interview Carter said he knew the words “Palestine” and “Apartheid” in his book’s title would be provocative. ‘I hope it provokes people to actually read the book and to find out the facts,” he said.

For a President whose reputation was just about as unblemished as it gets, publishing a book that equally champions the Israeli and the Palestinian points of view in a climate where Israel is sacrosanct, could either be considered naïve in the extreme or amazingly courageous.

Perhaps he believed his record of good works coupled with the unflinching respect Americans traditionally afford to ex-Presidents rendered him immune from ugly criticism.

A leader who had brokered the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt could not possibly be labeled an anti-Semite, he may have thought. If anyone in the US could get away with telling it as it is then Carter may have believed that he, more than anyone else, was the person to do it. If so, he was wrong.

That would have been spot on if Carter had leveled his criticisms at any other country in the world except Israel.

If the topic of his book had been, say, the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan or even the Bush administration’s foolhardy blunder in Iraq, he would have been roundly lauded for using his First Amendment right of free speech.

In that case, he would have been commended for opening up debate, offering another point of view and he would certainly have been safe from personal attacks.

The controversy may have damaged Carter in some quarters but it has also thrust the book into the public consciousness. Just three months subsequent to publication “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” was number six on the New York Times’ list of bestsellers.

Bringing to the fore the need for a two-state solution was Carter’s prime motive for writing the book.

“If I have had one burning desire in my heart and mind for the last 30 years, I would place peace for Israel on the top of the list,” said Carter, “and commensurate with that has to be justice and human rights for the Palestinians next door”.

Although Carter was psychologically prepared to face the wrath of his detractors and the pro-Israel Lobby he must have wounded by the resignation of 15 of his friends; all advisors on the Board of the quarter-of-a-century-old Carter Center, internationally known for its charitable good works.

In their resignation letters the cut-and-run advisors had this to say. “We can no longer endorse your strident and uncompromising position,” adding, “This is not the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter we came to respect and support”.

Kenneth W. Stein, one of the 15 who tendered their resignations, accused his former boss and friend of manipulating information, redefining facts and exaggerating conclusions. Stein also criticized the book saying it contained “egregious errors of both commission and omission”.

Apart from the word “Apartheid” in the title, echoing dark and cruel days in South Africa when it was ruled by white bigots, Carter’s critics fiercely objected to a sentence suggesting Palestinians should quit blowing themselves up as soon as they have their own state.

When challenged on this, Carter profusely apologized, saying, “Of course, they ought to abandon such tactics right now. That sentence was worded in a completely improper and stupid way.” In reprints of the book that sentence is to be excised.

Nobody in the public spotlight can get away with any suggestion that Palestinians are driven to suicide bombing by their long-term miserable plight.

If you recall, in 2002, Tony Blair’s wife Cherie was forced to say she was sorry after telling attendees at a Palestinian fundraiser “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves-up you are never going to make progress.”

One of Carter’s fiercest critics was his former friend and colleague Alan Dershowitz, a law professor and pro-Israel political commentator, who defends the use of torture, shows disdain for the Geneva Conventions and champions the Israeli military.

“I like Jimmy Carter,” is the way Dershowitz prefaces one of his back-stabbing columns. “I have known him since he began his run for president in early 1976. I worked hard for his election and I have admired the work of the Carter Center throughout the world. That’s why it troubles me so much that this decent man has written such an indecent book about the Israel-Palestine conflict”.

Democratic leader of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean have also gotten into the bash Carter act by condemning the latter’s reference to the “abominable oppression and persecution” of Palestinians by Israelis.

Whether this represents the left-wing pair’s genuine outrage or is simply a sop to pro-Israel voters in light of a looming presidential election is impossible to know. I would suspect the latter.

In his book Carter certainly does come down hard on Israel. He calls Israel’s policy “a system of apartheid with two peoples occupying the same land but separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights”.

He further maintains that “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.”

The pro-Israel Lobby in the US doesn’t get a free pass in Carter’s book either. “Because of powerful political, economic, and religious forces in the United States, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned”, he writes.

Critics have slammed the above statements, all of which are perfectly and undeniably true.

Israelis and Palestinians are separated from one another by a wall (Israelis like to call it a fence) that cuts through the West Bank and also by check points and roads reserved for the dedicated use of Israelis only. Most Israelis would freely admit they’ve never even spoken to a Palestinian.

Israel’s expansion of settlements and construction of new ones in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions even as peace talks were underway in the past, were obstacles to a settlement, as Carter rightly says.

And the fact that Carter has come under so much personal attack attests to his assertion that due to the power of the Lobby the Israeli government’s decisions are rarely condemned.

For instance, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) is attempting to use Carter’s words to smear Democratic election chances.

Indeed, the RJC has launched a massive campaign against the Democrats in the media using an image of the former President saying “I don’t think Israel has any legal or moral justification for its massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon.”

It’s certainly a credit to President Carter that he’s still smiling that famous warm smile. It could be that at his age he doesn’t much care what people think. Moreover his committed Christian beliefs no doubt give him strength along with his ethical character and conviction that the most important thing in life is doing the right thing.

Some are saying the former President has lost his marbles but when one looks at his record he’s been consistent in his efforts to be a peacemaker all along. One of his very first acts in office was to order a cut back on US troops stationed in South Korea and the removal of American nuclear weapons from that country.

In 1978, Carter pushed for a comprehensive peace accord between Arabs and Israelis and succeeded in negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

Carter’s foreign policy goals were always focused around human rights, and he was fervent in his opposition to dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Alfred Stroessner of Paraguay as well as the apartheid system of governance in South Africa.

His greatest mistake in the eyes of the American public was his inability to bring an end to the 1979 Iranian hostage situation. It was his failure to negotiate or effect the release of 52 American hostages held at the US embassy in Tehran that contributed to his loss of office in 1980 to President Ronald Reagan.

Since leaving office Carter has grown in the estimation of most Americans due to his sincere efforts in conflict resolution, peace-making, human rights and the promotion of democracy, which has included the monitoring of overseas elections.

Today, Jimmy Carter lectures at Emory University and teaches Sunday school at his local Baptist church. He is known to be an honorable, kind-hearted man who enjoys such simple pleasures as woodworking.

Those who slandered him so ruthlessly in recent months should analyze their true motives. If they are honest they should ask themselves whether President Carter is an anti-Semitic bigot or merely a simple man driven to put injustices to rights.

Whether you think “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” is a flawed historical account or a truthful treatise written with the best intentions to stir our consciences depends on your personal belief system.

However, it has succeeded in triggering a healthy debate over whether Israel is, in fact, an apartheid state, something that was vehemently denied at the 2001 UN Conference on Racism held in the South African city of Durban from which the US and Israeli delegations walked out in protest.

President Jimmy Carter should be credited with pushing the genii out of the bottle once and for all. Only when the US starts to hold Israel up to the same standards as every other nation on the planet will Carter achieve his life-long dream of peace in the Middle East along with the accolades this rare courageous man so richly deserves.


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