Likud Goverments don't scare former United States president Jimmy Carter. On the contrary: The electoral turnaround of 1977 that brought them to power for the first time enabled Carter to be inscribed in the history books as the leader who facilitated the first peace agreement between Israelis and Arabs. In his new book, "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land" (Simon & Schuster), Carter relates that neither he nor America's Jewish community knew what to expect from prime minister Menachem Begin, a former underground fighter who had acquired a bad name for himself as a war-mongering fanatic. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat reported to Carter that he had asked Eastern European leaders who knew the new prime minister whether Begin was an honest man and a strong person. According to him, the answers were in the affirmative.
In a telephone interview before this week's election, I asked Carter what he thinks of Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu. From his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta, the 39th U.S. president answered calmly that Netanyahu is a practical politician, and that if a proposed peace agreement wins broad support among the Israeli public, the Likud leader would not turn his back on it, and would be "constructive."
Carter does remember, however, that he had differences of opinion with Netanyahu, who argued - in contrast to Ariel Sharon, who as Begin's agriculture minister, enthusiastically supported a peace agreement with Egypt - that relinquishing Sinai would be harmful to Israel. Still, Carter thinks it is also important to note that during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, he sent out feelers to Syria regarding the Golan Heights.
The need for an immediate renewal of Israel's peace process with Syria, as well as with the Palestinians and Lebanon, was one of the topics of the conversation last month between the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the newly elected 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama. The elderly peace activist says he came away with the feeling that he had burst through an open door.
Peace plan outline
Carter's latest book begins with a personal confession concerning the use of the word "apartheid" on the cover of his previous book ("Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid"), and ends with an outline for an American peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. It includes the demilitarization of the Palestinian state and the introduction of peacekeeping forces; a withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries, with border adjustments in Jerusalem and its surroundings, in exchange for alternative territories for the Palestinians; shared control over Jerusalem's Old City; a Palestinian right of return to the territories only; and monetary compensation for the refugees. Carter proposed setting this September as the target for achieving these goals or at least for evaluating the progress and the remaining difficulties.
There are voices in the Israeli peace camp who believe that the United States, as well as other countries in the West, should be sending a clearer message to Israel about the military operation in Gaza, which not only cost the lives of so many, but also undermined the support, peace and trust of many Palestinians as well as Israelis in the process.
Carter: "Yes, I believe that's true. I'm very gratified to see the choice that President Obama has made of a peace envoy: George Mitchell. In my opinion, he's the best American he could possibly have chosen for that task and it may be that, with the strong backing of the White House and some direct American involvement in the negotiations, we'll see some progress made."
Do you think that if Israel had accepted the document you brought from Damascus [in April 2008], from Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, we could have avoided this last round of violence in Gaza?
"Absolutely ... And Meshal and his entire politburo, top members, were committed to that. To stop the rockets completely and to observe the cease-fire would open up the gates and let the people there have food, water, medicine and fuel.
"Hamas had offered to extend the cease-fire in December, but the Israelis were not willing to do it. I have met twice with Hamas leaders during this past year and both times that seems to be the only thing that they demanded - that there be no more attacks by either side, and that the crossings be opened, so that at least a moderate amount of food and water and medicine and fuel be permitted to come in to the people in Gaza.
"I don't have any doubt that Gaza could be peaceful if the one and a half million people there could get adequate food and supplies and have access to the outside world. But when you imprison that many Palestinians, of all political persuasions, and deprive them of the basic necessities of life, and also of freedom to move back and forth between there and the West Bank - or there and Egypt, or there and Jordan, or there and the ocean - then you breed dissension and that dissension is going to be expressed in violence."
In your opinion, why is Israel doing this?
"I don't understand why. Unless it's an attempt to punish the people in Gaza so badly that [they] will turn politically against Hamas. But I think that has proven to be a fallacy."
'Two separate issues'
Noting similarities between Hamas and Hezbollah, Carter says: "I think that Hezbollah in Lebanon has now gotten a very substantial status, as part of a major political organization. I was in Lebanon in December to help them prepare for an [upcoming] election, and Hezbollah and the other similar groups there might very well gain substantial [electoral] strength."
You have spoken to Meshal recently about captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. What are the chances that he will be home soon?
"When I met with the leaders in Damascus, they said he was well and alive, and so one of my requests to them was to get a letter written from him to his parents so they would know he was okay.
"I think that a good negotiator could work out an accommodation between Israel and Palestinians on a prisoner exchange that would result in the freedom of Shalit. But I don't think it's advisable to tie that to a cease-fire. I think they ought to be two separate issues."
Would you advocate Israel speaking directly with Hamas?
"Well, I think there needs to be a step-by-step process. The first step, in my opinion, in an overall peace agreement - there's got to be some reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. And that can go forward, I believe, if the United States and Israel would give it our tacit support, our strong support."
Carter points out that Meshal has said that "Hamas would accept any agreement negotiated between [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen and Israeli authorities if it was submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum and got a positive vote. So, it's not a hopeless case to have good-faith talks based on a two-state solution that would be approved by the Palestinians."
Would you advocate a change in the American attitude toward Hamas?
"Yes. I think it's absolutely important that Hamas be involved in any sort of peace process. In fact, I don't know what the relative popularity is of Hamas - I haven't seen any public opinion polls since the invasion and attack on Gaza, but I was the main observer in 2006, in January, when Hamas won a majority of the parliamentary seats. And as you know, almost all of those candidates who won, who lived in the West Bank, are now in Israeli prisons. So that means that the Hamas and Fatah unity government can't be formed at all. It's not an elected government there representing the Palestinian people; it's just a temporary government, basically appointed just to avoid having Hamas members."
George Mitchell visited Israel and the West Bank, and he went to Jordan and Egypt, but he avoided seeing Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"I know. I think that was just his first trip, where he's probably trying to refresh his memory, and learn the latest developments over there. But I have confidence that in the future, without too much delay, the United States will have diplomatic relations with Syria once again. When I go to the Middle East, I always go to Syria because I've known Bashar Assad since he was a college student, in London. When I go over there I enjoy meeting with him. I find him to be quite intelligent, and quite eager to have an agreement with Israel. And to be supportive, not only of the Golan Heights issue providing peace, but also supportive of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement."
The former president adds that he believes that if Assad feels comfortable with the United States and with Israel, he can also play a positive role vis-a-vis Hamas and Hezbollah.
You often sound like you're more concerned about the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state than many Israelis.
"I am. I'm deeply concerned about it. I would say that the top priority in my life, for international affairs in the last 30 years, has been to see Israel as a Jewish state living in security and peace. That's a number one priority that I have in my life. I'm getting old now, but I'm still active, and that's still a very high priority for me.
"I've known the history of the Jewish people, the Hebrew people, the Israelites, and I've taught these things every Sunday since I was 18 years old. So I'm deeply committed as a Christian to seeing the covenant with Abraham fulfilled," says Carter, noting that peace in the Middle East is also "a key to tremendously reducing the level of animosity against my own country, and reducing the commitment to violence through terrorist acts."
Do you believe it's also an American blunder that, in spite of U.S. policy and warnings and messages, the settlements kept growing and they keep growing actually as we speak?
"That's true. When I first visited the West Bank and the Golan Heights in 1973, I think there were only 1,500 Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. I think that [the expansion] happened particularly in the last 16 years. George Bush, Sr. was very strict in deterring, I think, then-prime minister [Yitzhak] Shamir from building settlements, and even withheld several hundred million dollars in U.S. aid from Israel because of a large settlement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And Shamir backed down because of that. But under president [Bill] Clinton and president George W. Bush, the settlements have not been deterred by influence from the United States, which is a mistake."
Carter is asked whether, after the traumatic evacuation of Gush Katif, it would be possible to remove approximately 120,000-130,000 settlers from the West Bank, and whether NATO countries will go along with his proposal to send forces there. He says he definitely believes that, within the context of a peace agreement, Israel will evacuate settlements. He also does not discount the possibility that U.S. forces could "assure that during the transition period, there wouldn't be any threats to Israel from Palestinians or to Palestinians from Israel."
The former president adds that "another option might have been Turkey, since a few weeks ago, Turkey and Israel were fairly friendly" - or alternatively any Arab or Muslim country that would be acceptable to both sides.
How do you see the solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program?
"I spent several days studying the maps and looking at the flight paths and the distances and so forth, because my profession was military as well, so I'm familiar with how far a plane can fly, of different types, and how much fuel that requires. When you have to go 2,000 miles round trip, you're going to have to refuel somewhere, over Iraq or over Saudi Arabia, which would be very difficult, or you'd have to carry a very tiny bomb to drop. You know you can't have both.
"I think that that kind of attack would not be effective in destroying Iran's plans for nuclear power ..., but I think it would enhance the support that Arab countries are giving Iran. I think Iran has been greatly strengthened in the last few years - by the war in Iraq, which I think was unnecessary, and also by the lack of progress on meeting the legitimate needs of the Palestinians. So if we can get out of Iraq, and if we could bring peace to the Palestinians - those two factors in themselves would greatly reduce the influence of Iran."
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