Mideast peace is possible, Carter says

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Former President Jimmy Carter said last week in St. Louis that he is optimistic peace can be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians, regardless of how the results of Israel’s recent elections turn out.

“It seemed a lot more impossible when Menachem Begin was elected,” Carter said, referring to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, which the former president was instrumental in negotiating. He helped bring the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together to sign the treaty on the White House lawn.

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“(Begin) had been a radical, he had resorted to violence in the past, he was characterized by Great Britain as a terrorist, and yet he accommodated the will of his people in the proposal that I made to him and Sadat and signed the peace agreement. That was almost exactly 30 years ago, and not a word of it has ever been violated,” said Carter.

Carter was in town on Tuesday, Feb. 10 to promote his new book, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work (Simon & Schuster, 2009). The former President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate drew a large crowd to the new downtown Left Bank Books store, where he signed copies of his new book, which takes a more nuanced stand on the Israel-Palestine conflict than his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

During a brief news conference before the signing, Carter said he also believed prospects for peace between Israelis and the Palestinians and other neighbors have improved with the election of President Barack Obama and the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as the special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell negotiated the Good Friday Accords, which ended the violence in Northern Ireland that took more than 3,000 lives in 30 years.

Asked what he hoped people would learn from his new book, Carter said, “I hope that people will realize that peace is possible and necessary, and that the Israelis and Palestinians and all their neighbors are also deeply committed to peace. And I spell it out very clearly, so that even a peanut farmer can understand it.

“I also feel that we are blessed to have a President (Obama) who has put peace in the Middle East at the top of his agenda, the first day he was in office, and not wait until the last day.”

Carter also praised Obama’s choice of Mitchell as special envoy, saying: “(Mitchell) knows what he is talking about and he has been very successful in the past. And he’ll take a more balanced point of view between the Israelis and their neighbors, which is necessary.”

The 39th president takes pains in his new book to avoid the appearance of an anti-Israel bias, which many of his supporters detected in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He has admitted that he deliberately chose a title that was “provocative” but now realizes that it stirred understandable resentment among Israeli supporters because of the implication that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was comparable to the racist and segregationist system used in South Africa. Some 14 Jewish board members of the Atlanta-based Carter Center had resigned to protest the title and tone of his 2006 book.

At the time, Carter said the criticism “hurt me.” He subsequently went on an extensive speaking tour to reach out to the Jewish community, including giving a speech at Brandeis University. His new book, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land, takes the position that “now is a unique time for achieving peace in the Middle East” and offers what he calls a “bold and comprehensive plan to do just that.”

Carter believes that both Israel and its neighbors will need to make painful concessions in order to achieve a meaningful peace agreement, just as was the case between Egypt and Israel. In the book, Carter provides a detailed historical context for the entire Middle East conflict and concrete proposals for a two-state solution, in which the Jewish State of Israel would live side-by-side in peace and security with an independent Arab State of Palestine. Israel would have to be flexible on giving up some of its Jewish settlements, while the Palestinians would have to be realistic regarding a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Carter takes note of the fact that the international peace- keeping and monitoring force he put into the Sinai after Israel returned the vast territory to Egypt can only be removed with the joint approval of Israel and Egypt. The previous United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) had been ordered removed by the unilateral action of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Any and all agreements between Israel and the Palestinians would have to be solidly guaranteed and enforced by the United States, United Nations, the European Union and Russia, the so-called “Quartet.”

Looking towards the short-term future for the Obama Administration’s efforts to achieve a Middle East peace, Carter said, “Whenever he settles on the best format that he can imagine, helped by George Mitchell and others in the region, then says to the Israelis and the Palestinians: ‘This is what I think is the best solution for you. It’s one that the United States government will back, and I can guarantee you that the vast majority of the American people who supported me in the campaign will also support this peace initiative.’ I think that will have a major impact on both sides.”

Several hundred people formed a line that stretched all the way around the block at the new Left Bank Books store, at 10th and Locust streets.

The atmosphere was festive with many people holding copies of several of Carter’s previous books as well as the current one for him to sign. Carter was said to have signed over 1,600 copies of his book in a little more than an hour, while managing to greet each person with a warm smile and a few words.

“I love all book stores,” the former President told reporters. “But I especially like stores like (Left Bank) which know the needs of their customers and provide that special kind of personal service.”