Commentary: Jimmy Carter: The Courage to Tell the TruthBy Matthew Taylor
Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid paints a disturbing picture: of a state, Israel, that has consistently violated international law in its pursuit of territorial expansion at the expense of an indigenous population. A life-long friend of the Israeli people and the mediator of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt, Carter is like a wise elder statesman who performs an intervention and tells an alcoholic in no uncertain terms, “It’s time to end this addiction, for your own benefit as well as for your family and friends.” Only in this case, the addiction is not to alcohol, but to colonization.
Based on personal experience, I can verify that the overall narrative and factual account of the book is not only accurate, it is of vital importance for all Americans to understand given the ways in which this systematic and willful oppression and dispossession of an entire people reverberates into the international arena.
Treating Palestinians as human beings of equal worth to Israelis, much less telling the whole truth about Israel’s destructive policies, is nearly taboo in the United States. When presidential candidate Howard Dean had the temerity in 2003 to propose that the United States be “even-handed” in its dealings with the two nations, he was furiously rebuked by a broad cross-section of Democratic Party leaders, including then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The influence of the pro-Israel lobby is undeniable, documented, and at odds with the best interests of Americans, Palestinians, and yes, even Israelis and Jews around the world. The United States sends billions in military aid to Israel every year, which is used to fund the occupation and confiscation of Palestinian land in the West Bank. Thus, American taxpayers pay for Israel to oppress Palestinians, which inflames hatred against Israelis and Americans, and stokes anti-Jewish sentiment worldwide. How on Earth could that be a good thing? But the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its cohorts, including the Christian Zionists, have succeeded in creating a climate of fear, self-censorship, and near-uncritical support for Israel. In this context, Carter’s book is truly remarkable, a profile in courage writ large.
My extensive travels throughout the Holy Land in the summer of 2005 confirm that President Carter is telling a painful truth. When I was in a small Palestinian town adjacent to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, I witnessed the Israeli military bulldozing a Palestinian man’s home. Why was it demolished? For one reason: to build a road that is only accessible to Israeli colonizers (euphemistically known as “settlers”). The man and his family were not suspected of any form of undesirable activity. The Israeli government simply chose to steal their land.
This incident encapsulates the crux of the problems described in Carter’s book: colonization, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. On one hand, he tells us, Israel for the past 39 years has willfully and flagrantly violated the Fourth Geneva Convention (to which it is a signatory) that “forbids an occupying power from transferring any parts of its civilian population into territories seized by military force.” Over 400,000 Israeli colonizers now live in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank (seized in the 1967 war), taking an enormous bite out of the 22 percent of British mandatory Palestine that the Palestine Liberation Organization has claimed as its state since 1988.
On the other hand, many Israeli colonizers live, work, or drive on stolen land. Bulldozing homes is ethnic cleansing, a deliberate attempt to make life so miserable for Palestinians that they have no choice but to emigrate. Israel has instituted numerous obstacles to normal life, such as movement barriers internal to Palestine that prohibit most citizens from traveling from one Palestinian city to another. In fact, many Palestinian women have given “birth” to stillborn babies at these movement barriers because they are denied the ability to travel to a hospital. Israel’s plan to force Palestinians to flee their homeland is working—thousands emigrate every year as they lose their land, their livelihoods, and their communities.
Finally, all of this constitutes apartheid (literally, “apartness” in Afrikaans) because in the West Bank, Israel has constructed an entirely separate set of exclusive facilities, public works, and roads for its colonizers, such that they live inside armed garrisons, completely separated from Palestinians. Israeli colonizers are provided up to 17 times more water access than Palestinians, and are able to comfortably fill swimming pools whereas Palestinians scrounge for enough to drink and cook. Israel’s apartheid is based on only slightly different criteria than it was in South Africa—in this case, Jewish vs. non-Jewish as opposed to white vs. non-white—but otherwise, the injustice is almost the same. Actually, it’s worse if one considers the extent of the land theft, exacerbated by Israel’s recent construction of an illegal wall/barrier inside the West Bank that has taken over 80 percent of the farmland of villages such as Bil’in.
I have personally met and spoken to numerous Israeli colonizers, and for the most extreme among them, Palestinians are barely recognizable as human beings if at all. According to these colonizers, all Palestinians are inferior to Jews and “they are all terrorists” no matter how obvious it is that Palestinian violence is a desperate response of a small minority of Palestinians to the oppression under which they live. For these colonizers, Palestinians should have no rights of any kind. Many prominent leaders of the colonizers openly advocate ethic cleansing (“transfer”) and propose that every last Palestinian be shipped off to Jordan. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who President Bush named a “man of peace,” called the Oslo peace agreement of the 1990s “national suicide” and stated, “Everybody has to move, run, and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours_ Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”
Carter’s overarching point is that successive Israeli governments have consistently undermined and frustrated every serious attempt to resolve the conflict by allowing their policies to be controlled and guided by the ideology and practice of colonization. For example, during Clinton’s administration and the Oslo accords, there was a 90 percent growth rate in illegal Israeli colonies in the occupied territories.
Carter’s account is both a personal reflection on his involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict—before, during, and after his presidency—and a detailed analysis of the current state of affairs. His writing is generally dry and descriptive, with occasional wry humor, and is rarely inspirational, emotional, or moving in its use of language. What is important about Carter’s treatment is the way in which he tells us the truth, bit by bit, about just how bad things have gotten.
There is hope: Carter details a variety of possible peace frameworks, such as the Arab League peace plan, to which every Arab government is a signatory. The plan calls for fully normalized relations with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders and a mutually agreed, just solution for refugees. Another possible two-state solution to the conflict is the Geneva Initiative, an unofficial agreement signed by numerous high-profile Palestinian and Israeli negotiators but never seriously considered by any Israeli government (Sharon rejected it out of hand, and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has indicated no interest).
As an introduction to the conflict, Carter’s book is light on context and historical background. For instance, the founding of the state of Israel, which Palestinians describe as “Al Naqba” (The Catastrophe) because it led to roughly 700,000 refugees being prohibited from returning to their homes, is barely mentioned. (See historians Mark Tessler, Charles Smith, or Ilan Pappe.) Further, little attention is paid to grassroots peace movements or their significance. Carter also does not mention the less severe, though still systematic and deplorable discrimination against Palestinians inside pre-1967 Israel. What Carter successfully provides is a thorough and accessible political exploration of what is necessary to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict, and what’s standing in the way.
Carter’s conclusion—that the primary obstacle to peace is Israel’s unending colonial project—is a profoundly unsettling one. And his analysis is quite similar to that of many Israelis who have devoted their lives to peace and justice, such as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, who recently published an even more pointed critique of Israel’s policies entitled “The Problem with Israel” (see www.icahd.org). Will Americans finally wake up to the truth and push the U.S. government to change its foreign policy to stop financing the occupation and compel Israel to implement one of the above-mentioned plans for peace, justice, and reconciliation? If such a thing happens, Carter will be rightly acknowledged as the best friend Israelis ever had, even as many attack and denigrate him now for exposing an inconvenient truth about Israel’s addiction to colonization.
Matthew Taylor is a fifth-year Peace and Conflict Studies student at UC Berkeley, editor of PeacePower magazine (www.calpeacepower.org), and Jewish.