I read Jimmy Carter’s new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid about a month ago. It’s a good book, a concise and clearly written summing up of the history of peace efforts in Palestine, much of it from Carter’s own point of view as an observer and participant.
Carter’s been criticized by some for not going into more detail about things, but it seems to me that the books’ conciseness is a strength, not a weakness. It seems to me that we have plenty of books and articles — including some of Carter’s own — that go into the complicated history of the region in more detail. This book, on the other hand, is a good clear overview, and reading it was a great refresher for me.
I’m particularly weak, myself, on what was happening in the Middle East or anywhere else from around mid 1998 to late 2000, because I was coping with a long, serious illness in those years, and as a result I’m always a bit foggy now on the order in which things happened during that period, whether in my life or in the world. So I found the book helpful in straightening out in my head the chronology of what happened near the end of Clinton’s presidency and the beginning of Bush’s. And there’s a lot of good information here, too, including a series of appendices containing the texts of U.N. Resolutions 242, 338, and 465, the Camp David Accords, and other relevant documents.
Carter has written about his views on the Middle East before, and he doesn’t say anything here that seemed very surprising to me. He thinks the best hope for peace in the Middle East is to continue in the direction he was working toward during his presidency. Well, big surprise, that. He thinks Israel’s current policies, which are heading in the very opposite direction, are making things worse, not better. Well, big surprise again.
Since reading the book, though, I’ve been engaged in a few arguments, on the WELL and elsewhere, that all seem to go something like this:
Other Person: Oh, I know all about Carter’s book. It’s terrible. It’s riddled with omissions and factual errors. I can’t believe you were naive enough to read it.
Me: What do you think he has omitted?
Other Person: He never mentions that Yasir Arafat did such-and-such a thing in 1970-something.
Me: Actually, he specifically mentions that incident on page so-and-so.
Other Person: Well, he never mentions that Egypt and Syria did such-and-such a thing in 1980-whatever.
Me: That’s on page so-and-so.
Other Person: Well, he never mentions the bombing of such-and-such in 1990-something.
Me: No, he specifically refers to that on page so-and-so.
Other Person: But he doesn’t point out that all those things justify Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians today.
Me: But that’s not an omission and it’s not a factual error. It’s a difference of opinion. He just doesn’t think those things justify Israel’s actions.
Other Person: There’s no point in talking with you about it. Go back and read the book more carefully and you’ll see.
One thing that makes this book very readable and very moving is that much of what Carter writes comes out of his own experiences and observations in the Middle East, so that we see Israel up close and through his eyes. Throughout a 1973 trip, for example, he writes that “we found the country to be surprisingly relaxed and saw only a handful of people in uniform, mostly directing traffic at the busier intersections. Also, there seemed to be an easy relationship among the different kinds of people we met, including Jews and Arabs.”
But on a trip he took after leaving the White House, he saw a much changed Israel. He recounts the many complaints he heard about the oppressive Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and even Israel’s seizing of foreign aid meant to go to the Palestinians. Carter writes that he found these reports disturbing and hard to believe, but when he asked Israeli authorities about them, the officials freely admitted to these actions, saying to Carter that “…some of the confiscated funds might have been diverted to finance acts of Arab terrorism …. some USAID funds appropriated by the U.S. Congress even for benevolent projects were kept by the Israeli government when necessary to prevent misspending ….”
Carter writes next about a briefing he later received on Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.
“With maps and charts, he explained that the Israelis acquired Palestinian lands in a number of different ways: by direct purchase; through seizure “for security purposes for the duration of the occupation”; by claiming state control of areas formerly held by the Jordanian government; by “taking” under some carefully selected Arabic customs or ancient laws; and by claiming as state land all that was not cultivated or specifically registered as owned by a Palestinian family. Since lack of cultivation or use for farming is one of the criteria for claiming state land, it became official policy in 1983 to prohibit, under penalty of imprisonment, any grazing or the planting of trees or crops in these areas by Palestinians. Large areas taken for “security” reasons became civilian settlements.
Maybe the most painful chapter is Carter’s account of the building of the wall that snakes through the West Bank segregating Israelis from Palestinians.
The wall ravages many places along its devious route that are important to Christians. In addition to enclosing Bethlehem in one of its most notable intrusions, an especially heartbreaking division is on the southern slope of the Mount of Olives, a favorite place for Jesus and his disciples, and very near Bethany, where they often visited Mary, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. There is a church named for one of the sisters, Santa Marta Monastery, where Israel’s thirty-foot concrete wall cuts through the property. The house of worship is now on the Jerusalem side, and its parishioners are separated from it because they cannot get permits to enter Jerusalem.
I’ve read where Carter has been chastised for allegedly putting all the blame for the situation on Israel, but this doesn’t seem accurate to me. Carter has plenty of criticism both for the Israeli leaders who confiscate Palestinian land and for the Palestinians who take part in violence against Israel, or who applaud it, and for the maze of impossible preconditions that leaders on both sides put on any peace talks, guaranteeing that talks won’t and can’t happen.
But I think Carter’s primary goal in this book is actually to put pressure on the United States, whose participation, he says, is necessary to renewing peace talks but which has all but abandoned any effort to do so. It seems to me that what he really wanted to do with this book is not to put all the blame on Israel, but to show that there is plenty of wrong being done on both sides of the conflict, and that a powerful, trusted third party is needed to act as an honest broker to break through the impasse. If more of the American people know and understand what’s going on in the occupied territories, that the situation is less one-sided than our current administration and news media present it, and that if we could bring peace to Palestine we would be going a long way toward bringing peace to the whole Middle East — including Iraq — then perhaps we in the United States can create enough pressure on our leaders to take more active and sensible steps toward peace.