Mr. President: ‘Tear down this wall’

Carter shines a light on the failure of the West Bank

What would Jimmy do?: Carter blasts the current administration for abandoning peace in the Middle East.

What would Jimmy do?: Carter blasts the current administration for abandoning peace in the Middle East.

Courtesy Of U.S. Navy

“When I was president I was working day and night to bring peace to Israel,” said Jimmy Carter, 82, sitting in a hotel suite in New York. “When I went out of office I thought I had succeeded.” Almost 30 years later, the lasting peace promised by Carter’s 1978 Camp David Accords remains elusive. But the 39th president hasn’t given up. Through the Carter Center in Atlanta, Carter (who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002) has worked to secure free and safe elections in the Palestinian territories.

And he is hoping his new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, will alert Americans to the reasons he believes peace has failed in the Middle East.

John Freeman, a freelance writer and president of the National Book Critics Circle, recently spoke to President Carter about the book and his views on the Middle East. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?

It became increasingly apparent to me that terrible things were happening in the West Bank in Palestine to the Palestinians that were not known or even acknowledged by much of the outside world, particularly the United States. So I thought it was time for there to be injected into the political discussions nationwide an assessment of what was happening in the Middle East.

In the book, you talk about your first trip to Israel as a presidential hopeful and its emotional and spiritual importance for you, as a Christian. Did you go to Palestinian territory then?

As a matter of fact, a lot of the territory I was in was the Palestinian territories—all down the Jordan River Valley and a good portion up around Golan Heights. Those were Israeli-occupied territories. At that time, everyone expected the Israeli forces to withdraw from the occupied territories. … Nobody dreamed that there would be a massive escalation of the Israelis to colonize, you might say, the entire area of the West Bank.

Would you say a policy of strangulation is in effect?

Oh, there is.

What role does the wall Israel is building play in this?

Really, what precipitated me to go back and talk to President Bush and to write this book was the first sight I had of the wall. I never saw the wall until I went over there in January of 2005 to cover the election of Yasser Arafat’s replacement. And when I saw the wall I was horrified.

Is that why you decided to put it on the book’s cover?

Yeah. This wall was originally conceived by Yitzhak Rabin to be put along the border of Israel—along Israeli territory—to prevent cross-border raids by Palestinian terrorists. But when Rabin was assassinated, [Ariel] Sharon and [Benjamin] Netanyahu had the idea: Let’s use the wall for a different purpose. Let’s use it to confiscate Palestinian land. We won’t build the wall on our border. We’ll build the wall on Palestinian land. And we’ll make tremendous intrusions to encompass settlements that already exist, and other areas on which we want to build settlements. So that’s what they’ve done. As I point out, this wall plus the Jordan River Valley will form a circle around the entire West Bank, just as they have done already with Gaza. Gaza’s completely surrounded by walls: It’s only got two openings.

Is the wall being built with American money?

They deny it, but who knows? We give Israel $10 million a day. George Bush Sr. withheld about $700 million from the Israelis because they used money to build settlements. And he threatened to stop all American aid if they didn’t stop building the settlement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. So they stopped it. Because of that threat. As soon as he left office, then they started building again.

In some ways, it seems like this book is a study in the failure of states. For as you reveal, both sides want peace here.

There really are two Israels. There is an Israel within its own borders that I would say exemplifies the best elements of Judeo-Christian tradition, with justice and peace and an absence of apartheid. It’s a completely different Israel in the occupied territories. There you have a military regime, military courts. Information extracted from a prisoner under the force of torture is permitted as evidence. They put people in prison as young as 12 years, and they keep people under military detention for 180 days—and they can extend that in 90-day increments. They try these people and convict them in military courts, and then they send them into Israel to prison.

So what are your signs for hope? Is there anything now?

One sign of hope is what [Ehud] Olmert had to say [last week, proposing a prisoner exchange, the closing of checkpoints and more in return for an end to violence, as well as offering to restart peace talks]. I haven’t seen the statement, but people told me about it. But the only real hope is for the United States to cast our lot with a clear majority of Israelis who want to see Israel exchange Palestinian land for permanent peace. A majority of Israelis have always voted that way.

In every public-opinion poll. After Rabin was assassinated, the right-wing leaders—Netanyahu, Olmert and Sharon—they rejected all previous agreements for peace. In fact, Sharon declared that the Oslo agreement was national suicide. And that rejection of a peace agreement put us back a ways.

You also talk in the book about the power vacuum the United States has created by not engaging in the peace process since George W. Bush became president. What has this cost us?

It has cost us popularity, esteem, trust and respect, friendship throughout the Muslim world, throughout the Arab world. I think it has built up in a more intense way the violence against the United States, including terrorism. Every Arab knows that for the last six years, different from all previous presidencies, this administration has not made one single day of effort to have peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to alleviate their plight.