I sat down with former President Jimmy Carter last week at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The Center was hosting a conference of human-rights defenders, people at the front lines confronting repressive regimes around the globe. After a quarter-century of humanitarian work through the Carter Center, monitoring elections, working to eradicate neglected tropical diseases and focusing on the poor, Jimmy Carter now finds himself at the center of the storm in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After more than three decades of work on the Middle East, Carter released a book titled “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” The book’s title alone has created a furor. But Carter is undeterred:
“The word ‘apartheid’ is exactly accurate. This is an area that’s occupied by two powers. They are now completely separated. Palestinians can’t even ride on the same roads that the Israelis have created or built in Palestinian territory. The Israelis never see a Palestinian, except the Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians never see an Israeli, except at a distance, except the Israeli soldiers. So within Palestinian territory, they are absolutely and totally separated, much worse than they were in South Africa, by the way. And the other thing is, the other definition of ‘apartheid’ is, one side dominates the other. And the Israelis completely dominate the life of the Palestinian people.”
Carter lays much of the blame for the lack of momentum toward a solution on the absence of debate in the U.S.: “It’s a terrible human-rights persecution that far transcends what any outsider would imagine. And there are powerful political forces in America that prevent any objective analysis of the problem in the Holy Land. I think it’s accurate to say that not a single member of Congress with whom I’m familiar would possibly speak out and call for Israel to withdraw to their legal boundaries or to publicize the plight of the Palestinians or even to call publicly and repeatedly for good faith peace talks.”
As president, Carter brokered the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords, creating a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. President Clinton, who officiated over the failed 2000 Camp David Summit between Israel and the Palestinians, has been highly critical of Carter’s perspective. Clinton blames the Palestinian leadership for rejecting Israel‘s “generous offer.” Interestingly, Israel‘s chief negotiator, former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, told me in 2006, “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well.”
While we were in Atlanta, DePaul University in Chicago reached a settlement with professor Norman Finkelstein. Despite hailing him as a “prolific scholar and an outstanding teacher,” DePaul denied him tenure, many believe because of his outspoken criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians. The son of Holocaust survivors himself, Finkelstein has been praised by leading scholars.
Just months before he died, Raul Hilberg, revered founder of the field of Holocaust studies, praised Finkelstein’s work: “That takes a great amount of courage. His place in the whole history of writing history is assured and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.”
Open debate on Israel-Palestine should not come at such a high cost. It is essential to Middle East peace. The Iraq Study Group, in its bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Report, stated, “The United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Carter’s book cover has a picture of the “Separation Barrier.” Israel originally designed the wall to run along the internationally recognized 1967 border. Carter noted that Israel decided to “move the wall from the Israeli border to intrude deeply within Palestine to carve out some of that precious land for the Israeli settlers to occupy.” The International Court of Justice has ruled it illegal. It is more than half completed, with plans to snake more than 400 miles, mainly through the West Bank. In places the wall is more than 25 feet high and made of concrete.
Carter describes it as “much worse” than the Berlin Wall. Elder Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery writes:
“When my friends fall prey to despair, I show them a piece of painted concrete, which I bought in Berlin. It is one of the remnants of the Berlin Wall, which are on sale in the city. I tell them that I intend, when the time comes, to apply for a franchise to sell pieces of the Separation Wall.”
That barrier stands in the United States as well — metaphorically — around any kind of rational debate for a fair and just solution in the Middle East. My suggestion: Tear down that wall.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.