Arab Spring

A barren tree, once full of life
Stands leafless, brown ice in gloom
A barren tree, once full of strife
Stands not a spark, not a flower in bloom
A barren tree, once full of promise
Stands in sorrow, a promise but for tomorrow
As for today, not a leaf dares there stay

Saturday, February 03, 2007

In Defense of Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter’s “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” instigated a flurry of vicious criticism from Israeli sympathizers from across the American political spectrum upon its publication in November 2006. Although his critics encompassed a broad range from the political classes as well as activists and academicians, they were the usual faith-based Israel apologists that seek to cement the “irreproachable Israel” mantra that impelled Jimmy Carter to write his book. Much of the criticism consisted of ad hominem attacks on Jimmy Carter’s character and his new found hate of Israel. As Carter, himself, stated in a speech at Brandeis University, he has been labeled a liar, a plagiarist, an anti-Semite, a bigot and a coward. All this for stating the obvious and that which has been stated many times: the system of Jewish-only settlements, Jewish-only roads, road-blocks in Palestinian cities and a wall that snakes its way through the West Bank, at times surrounding entire cities, amounts to apartheid. Such use of the word apartheid to describe Israel’s actions in the West Bank, while may be controversial here, is not elsewhere including in Israel but as Carter points out in “Palestine” and in subsequent opinion pieces, the debate over Israel’s thwarting of international law through its occupation of Palestinian lands is carried out everywhere, including in Israel, but rarely in American media or the American halls of power. Carter’s book carefully recounts the history and context of the conflict but his main focus remains in the issue of settlements, demonstrating his belief that it is the most formidable obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jimmy Carter is not a new comer to the Middle East, and especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. His contribution to Israel’s security is the greatest gift any American President has produced before him or since. In 1978, through his determination and despite the two parties to the conflict, he brought Egypt and Israel together in the historic Camp David peace agreement that guaranteed Israel’s security in the western front and effectively disengaged Egypt, the most populous Arab country and where a third of all Arabs live, from the Arab-Israeli conflict. In “Palestine”, Jimmy Carter states that the terms of the Camp David Accords clearly prohibited the building of any settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. As if this were not enough to drive his point home, he also notes that “In 1980, UN Resolution 465 (Appendix 5), calling on Israel to dismantle existing settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, was passed unanimously.” Despite his criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, he was quick to pour lavish praise on Israel’s democracy within its 1948 borders and the “degree of freedom” in the society from the Kenesset to the media. He paints starkly disparate tableaus of Israel in its 1948 borders and Israel in the occupied territories. Essentially, Israel has become a state within a state, the inner one democratic, secular, and free, the outer one dictatorial, fanatic and oppressive.

In choosing the settlements as the focus of his book, Jimmy Carter pinpoints the core issue in the conflict: land. He quotes Ariel Sharon as saying as late as 1996 that “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.” This statement was made by Ariel Sharon, who was to become prime minister of Israel in 2001, six years into Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians that started with the Madrid talks in 1991. A central issue here is whether Israel will allow the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as UN Resolution 242 and 338 as well as the Madrid talks and the Oslo Accords stipulate. But as to sow no doubt about Israel’s settlement policy, Carter states that in the years Clinton was in office, from 1993 to 2000, “there was a 90 percent growth in the number of settlers in the occupied territories, with the greatest increase during the administration of Prime Minister Ehud Barak,” Barak being the Labor Prime Minister. Another way to look at it is at the end of 2000, there were 225,000 settlers in the occupied territories up from 78,000 in 1991: a whopping 288% increase during the peace process years. As Carter points out, only 20% of the settlers were to be evacuated in the best offer received by the Palestinians in the year 2000, leaving more than 180,000 settlers in more than 209 fortified settlements in the stillborn state of Palestine. Needless to say the peace process foundered and in the American press the Palestinians, and specifically PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, were blamed for their intransigence.

Jimmy Carter seemed especially affected by the failure of the Oslo peace accords and of its immediate aftermath. He meticulously documents the events of March 2001 after Ariel Sharon is elected prime minister of Israel. On March 27, a suicide bomber kills 30 Israelis during a Passover holiday in Netanya, Israel. The next day, on March 28, the twenty-two member nations of the Arab League, after a long debate, unanimously endorsed a Saudi resolution calling for normal relations between Israel and all Arab nations if Israel complies with UN resolutions 194 and 242. Jimmy Carter specifies, “Asked how ‘normal relations’ were defined, the Saudis responded, ‘We envision a relationship between the Arab countries and Israel that is exactly like the relationship between the Arab countries and any other state.’” The following day, on March 29, Yasir Arafat’s office compound in Ramallah was destroyed by Israel, leaving only a few rooms where Arafat was imprisoned until his death in November of 2004. According to Jimmy Carter, Arafat was not the only Palestinian prisoner of Israel; about 630,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned since 1967 which is more than 20% of the Palestinian population of the occupied territories.

Almost none of these facts were disputed or even discussed in the barrage of criticism that came from American political and academic circles. Instead platitudes such as Carter’s alleged disregard for Israel’s security needs were lobbed at the former President, although Carter was criticizing Israel’s settlement building and not calling for its imminent withdrawal from the territories. No one expects Israel to leave the territories without making peace with the neighborhood but no one expects Israel to leave the territories when it has 300,000 settlers in permanent settlements therein. Many critics raised the specter of the Holocaust and its effect on Jewish political identity, but Carter never questioned the existence of the Jewish state nor belittled its importance to the Jews. Almost all reviewers completely sidestepped the issue of settlements and parried the main questions, about Jewish settlements, Palestinian imprisonment and peace, raised by the book.

Finally many reviewers took issue with the title of the book which evokes images of the South African Apartheid state. As stated earlier this analogy is not new nor does it take much imagination to see that Jews and Arabs living in a state of “apartness” in the occupied territories with Jews having better homes, better roads and more of the water constitutes apartheid. In fact in September 2006, the editorial board of Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, stated, “the apartheid regime in the territories remains intact; millions of Palestinians are living without rights, freedom of movement or a livelihood, under the yoke of ongoing Israeli occupation.” While it may not be agreed upon in Israel that the occupation at this point constitutes apartheid, it can be safely stated in Israel by its leading daily without an ensuing furor. Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-Apartheid South Africa, himself, stated in an address to the Palestinian Assembly in 1999 that “The histories of our two peoples correspond in such painful and poignant ways that I intensely feel myself at home amongst my compatriots.” Furthermore in 2002, in a speech in the United States the South African Bishop Desmond Tutu said he observed “the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” Even Yossi Beilin, an Israeli Kenesset member, couldn’t resist the word choice though he was stung by it: “Somewhere down the line — and symbolically speaking, that line may be crossed the day that a minority of Jews will rule a majority of Palestinians west of the Jordan River — the destructive nature of occupation will turn Israel into a pariah state, not unlike South Africa under apartheid.”

That line is perhaps already crossed. According to Israeli and Palestinian census figures there are 5.3 million Jews in Israel and 1.4, 2.4 and 1.6 million Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, which amounts to 5.3 Jews and 5.4 Arabs west of the Jordan river. Perhaps in reminding us about the dangers of apartheid, Jimmy Carter is trying to preserve the Jewish nature of Israel which it cannot maintain without leaving the occupied territories and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. The only other options are a binational state with an Arab majority or apartheid.