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Jimmy Carter on the Anniversary of the Camp David Peace Accords

September 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, former President Jimmy Carter. Twenty-five years ago today, in the East Room of the White House, he presided over a dramatic breakthrough to Middle East peace. Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel signed the accords that led to the first formal peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors.

That signing followed 13 days of intense negotiations at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. Mr. Carter was in Washington today at a forum commemorating the accords.

I talked to him about matters past and present this morning at his Washington hotel.

Mr. President, welcome.

PRESIDENT CARTER: It’s good to be back on your program.

JIM LEHRER: Are there parallels between the situation in the Middle East 25 years ago and now?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Unfortunately, yes. I was — been studying up, as a matter of fact, reviewing my original notes and my– the book that I’ve written about this and also re-read yesterday morning, the so-called “road map” for peace that has been put forward by President Bush and also the Oslo Agreements that took place in 1993, 10 years ago. And there is an exact parallel between them and unfortunately some of the issues are still troubling that were troubling as far back as 1967 when U.N. Resolution 242 was passed.

So–so the major issues don’t change. The one thing that did occur at Camp David, 25 years ago was that it was a complete success in sealing a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and of course Egypt was the major formidable opponent for Israel and not a word of that peace treaty has been violated since it was signed by Begin and Sadat.

JIM LEHRER: Why are the things still so in such terrible shape now 25 years later, I mean, yes, Egypt and Israel are at peace but the rest of that area is not.

PRESIDENT CARTER: If you read United Nations Resolution 242, the basis for all the discussions that I just mentioned, it calls for two things. One is for the Arab world in effect to recognize Israel’s right to exist, to exist in peace behind secure borders and to be in effect absorbed into the world community without objection by the Arab world including the Palestinians. That’s one major thing that has not yet been done. The other one is for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, the many settlements that have been built there on Palestinian land. And so the exchange of land for peace has been the basic simplified premise ever since the very beginning and those two things have not yet been done.

JIM LEHRER: If somebody were to ask you, which I’m going to do now, what should–what should happen–what could happen now, what could somebody or group of somebodies do to get this thing back on track?

PRESIDENT CARTER: The only thing that could be done in the long term is to deal with those two issues. Israel to agree that its own peace and security and its permanence and acceptance in the world, depends on complying with all the international laws including one unquestioned by the United States, included by the way in President Bush’s road map for peace that Israel withdraw its many settlements that have now been planted all over the West Bank and Gaza.

Each settlement that sometimes consists of only 10 people, has to be surrounded by a military force. And that settlement has to be connected to the adjacent ones by a highway which cuts the West Bank and Gaza up into little tiny parts and makes it almost impossible for the Palestinians to have a contiguous or homogenous land of their own. And that is a requirement in all that approaches to a peace in the Mideast so withdrawal of the settlements is one thing.

It’s equally crucial that every Arab country of any significance, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syriaall of them, agree that Israel should be recognized without restrain, as having a right to live in peace, to be recognized diplomatically, and that all the Arab countries agree also to cut off any possible support and condemn any Palestinian group, Hamas and others, that continues to attack Israelis. So peace and security and acceptance in the Arab world of Israel and the withdrawal of Israel from most of the settlements. That’s what is required.

JIM LEHRER: Is heavy U.S. involvement also required?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, it certainly was 25 years ago when I was deeply involved, and I think it certainly is now. There was one interlude when the United States was not involved, and that was with the Oslo Accords in 1993 when the Norwegian Government and the Norwegian Social Science Department did secretly negotiate an agreement between Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, on the one hand, and Arafat, on the other hand. And that was a wonderful agreement. It spelled out a timetable for a complete peace there.

Big ceremonies were held at the White House. I happened to be one of those invited, and, of course, the United States kind of took credit for that agreement, in which they were not involved. The Norwegians did the work. So I think that was a rare exception. I think yes, now, there is a quartet, so-called, of the United States, Great Britain, Russia and the United Nations, but almost by default the United States has become the sole spokesman for the quartet.

And unless the United States is heavily involved to put maximum influence–I won’t use the word pressure–on both the Arab world and Israel simultaneously, the two goals that I described earlier, I think that unless that is done we will not have peace in the Mideast.

JIM LEHRER: Howard Dean said a week or so ago, caught some heat for saying the United States should be even-handed and should not take sides between the Arab world and Israel. Do you agree with him?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I agree completely with that. Unfortunately, the phrase evenhanded has taken on a negative connotation. A balanced position is absolutely necessary, because Israelis have to know that the United States is not going to condone violations on the Israeli side, and the Palestinians have to know that they have hope that they will be represented equally well at the negotiating table. So I would say a balanced position between the Israelis and their adversaries in meeting the international standards, which is spelled out quite well in the so-called road map now. That is necessary. You cannot just line up with one side against the other and expect to have voluntary compliance.

JIM LEHRER: But Senator Lieberman, who was one of the critics of Governor Dean said, wait a minute, Israel is our ally and has been for years. How do you rationalize the two?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I don’t think it is a violation of our commitment to Israel or our so-called alliance with Israel to try to bring peace to the Mideast including Israel. Unless there is a balanced position of the self-proclaimed neutral mediator, you are not going to have any progress. As a matter of fact, when the so-called road map was published this April, April the 9th of 2003, fairly soon the Israeli Cabinet issued 14 disclaimers or caveats, 14 things they were not going to do, which was a very serious setback for any further progress on the road map and for the United States to condone Israel saying we will not comply with 14 things in your road map, almost closed the door for further progress.

So, I know that President Bush and his entire administration don’t deserve to be criticized because they have been bogged down with other major issues at this time. I would have too if I had been in office. Iraq, Afghanistan, I guess you would also say Syria, Iran and North Korea, they have got a lot on their plate. And there is no way that President Bush could devote full time to try to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians, as I was able to do 25 years ago in the 13 isolated days at Camp David.

JIM LEHRER: So you are not suggesting that President Bush replicate, try to replicate what you did– take Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat up to Camp David and hammer it out, the way you did, stay 12 days, 13 days, 18 days, whatever it takes?

PRESIDENT CARTER: No, I wouldn’t advocate that.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I don’t think it is possible at this point to abandon other international affairs in order to elevate the Mideast peace process to that level of importance.

Also, as you know, although Arafat was elected fairly and squarely in January of 1996 in an election as the president of the Palestinians, he has not been accepted by the Bush administration at all as a spokesperson for the Palestinians. And they and the Israelis together have been trying to get some alternative to Arafat. Arafat has been a big disappointment to me. I know him quite well. In fact, I think I know almost all the players pretty well, but I don’t think Arafat has shown that proper leadership in condemning violence among the Palestinians.

And he has not shown the same kind of courageous leadership that he did show in 1993 in negotiating the so-called Oslo Agreement. So I don’t really think at this point that President Bush would have an interlocutor to represent the Palestinians that would be acceptable to him.

JIM LEHRER: Some people have suggested in comparing other present situations with Camp David that it is a matter of principles. It is a matter of people and they’d say Arafat is no Sadat. Sharon, Ariel Sharon is no Menachem Begin, and George W. Bush is no Jimmy Carter. Would you agree with that?

PRESIDENT CARTER: We are not the same; we are different. There is no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t put myself above President Bush in any way. In many ways, Begin and Sharon have a lot in common. I know Sharon quite well. He is a tough military general and also a farmer. And most of my conversations with him over the last 25 years has been about our farming operations. And I have had some help from him, as a matter of fact.

At Camp David, when we were down to the point after 11 days of preparing a failure statement, I learned a couple of years later that Menachem Begin called Ariel Sharon and asked him, in effect, should I accept Carter’s proposal or not. And Sharon advised him to do so.
And that required Begin to do something or permit something that he has sworn before God never to do, and that was to dismantle 14 settlements that the Israelis had built on Egyptian land in the Sinai. Begin never would agree to order them dismantled. What I finally induced him to do was permit the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, the make the decision, so that Begin would not have to make the decision, and the Knesset voted 85 percent to do so in order to gain peace agreement with Egypt.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, on the Middle East, why is it important to the United States? Why did you spend so much time on it? Why have other presidents and secretaries of state spent so much time? Why, as some people have suggested, why not–if these people can’t get their act together and they want to kill each other, let them do it until they get tired and then let’s come in and try to figure out something. Why is it so important?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, to be perfectly blunt about it, it’s not nearly as important now as it was 25 years ago, because we were involved in the Cold War when I was president. And it was not only a matter of Israel versus Egypt or Israel versus Palestinians. It was a matter of, of the entire Middle East region being challenged between the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

And Egypt had been a firm ally of the Soviet Union. Sadat had been in bed with the Soviets. Syria was still closely aligned with the Soviets. Many of the Palestinians were, the Palestinian leadership was, Iraq was. And so I was dealing with a global issue that had a direct effect on the security of my country in order to bring peace there.

Had war broken out, we could very well have, have had a nuclear confrontation. As a matter of fact, when President Nixon was in office, and in the ’73 war, so-called, that’s the only time in history when the United States and the Soviet Union raised our nuclear capabilities to a high pitch of readiness. There was a very good chance for a nuclear exchange.

So, the point I’m making is that now it’s primarily Israel and the Palestinians. Back then it was Israel, Egypt and a direct connection and a confrontation between the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

JIM LEHRER: Still important, but not as important as it was then.

PRESIDENT CARTER: Still important, but not as important. I agree with that.

JIM LEHRER: A couple of other subjects. You mentioned the other interests that the U.S. has now, other problems the U.S. has right now. What’s your feeling about how the United States is handling the postwar situation in Iraq?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, my hope now, as it was months ago, is that the United States reach out to the international community and have a common sharing of responsibility, militarily but with U.S. command, politically and economically, so that the Iraqi people and the entire world know that it’s not just any possibility the United States is trying to gain a foothold in Iraq for our own benefit, but that we really are determined to have as quick as possible a turnover of the military control of that and political control and economic control of their own affairs to Iraqi people. And I think the only way to do this expeditiously and with almost an immediate reduction in tension and violence there is to reach out through the United Nations to the other major powers, and bring them in as our partners.

The only caveat that I would add quickly, I’ve already mentioned is, that I would not turn over military command to the United Nations organization. I think we have to have an American military command, but it ought to be shared with others working through the United Nations Security Council.

JIM LEHRER: So you think the U.S. has taken the right course now, trying to get this done?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I think that what Colin Powell has said lately is the right course. I’m not sure yet that that’s a firm policy of the entire U.S. government, yes, to reach out to other countries and bring them in in a way that they feel that they’ll play a major role.

JIM LEHRER: You monitor that area very closely. What do you say to critics who say that actually our action in Iraq has made it worse in terms of terrorism generally, particularly terrorism against the United States, not only there but the potential elsewhere in the world?

PRESIDENT CARTER: That may be true that it is–there has not been a lessening of terrorist threat against the United States. I think the Iraqi issue has focused the terrorist element on a way to lash out against the United States. I noticed that Secretary Powell said there might be a 100 terrorists who have crossed over into Iraq, so it’s not a massive number, but it’s a very troubling number.

But you have to remember that another very aggravating issue for the last 75 years almost has been the absence of resolving the Israeli relationship with Israel’s neighbors, and this is a constant irritant for troublemakers and for potential marshallers of terrorists and for anti-American attitudes within countries surrounding them.

I noticed in the recent public opinion poll in, I think it was in New York Times this week, that in Jordan, which has always been our friend, only one percent of Jordanian people look with favor on the United States of America. And so we’ve lost that support, and an equivalent amount other countries that used to be our allies and friends, partially because of Iraq, but I’d say even more so because of a lack of resolving the Palestinian issue.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, North Korea. You wrote a couple of weeks ago that there’s a strong possibility of our going to war with North Korea. Why did you say that?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I think it’s true. It was true in 1994 when I went to Pyongyang, and worked with the U.S. government and with the North Koreans to resolve a similar crisis then. I think that if North Korea does become a full-fledged nuclear military force, that will completely destabilize that part of the world. I don’t think there’s any way then that Japan can refrain from becoming a nuclear power, and maybe even South Korea as well.

Also, you have to remember that although the North Korean people are starving, they have a formidable military capability and also a highly-developed technological capability. Their missiles, for instance, are eagerly sought by Third World countries all over including some of our friends like Yemen.

They also have prepared for the last 50 years to launch an immediate, you might say a preemptive strike against Seoul, and the military estimates by South Koreans and our own peopleare that in the first few hours of a war, no matter how badly North Korea might be destroyed by a U.S. preemptive or retaliatory strike, that a million people or so might be killed in South Korea because their weapons, they have about 15,000 missiles and artillery pieces that can reach as far as Seoul. And of course we have now still about 35,000 U.S. troops in South Korea as well.

So to push the North Koreans into a stupid mistake of that kind, either in response to an attack or fearing that they are going to be attacked, I think, is the biggest single threat to peace in the world today, and my hope is that we will see China continue their good offices and, and bring the six powers together again.

I was with– in China three days ago meeting with their new leader, Hu Jintao, and he told me that he was going to make every effort to bring the parties back together, and this would include the United States and North Korea. Under that kind of a small umbrella, then there’s a possibility the United States and North Korea could work out their problems, and I certainly hope they will.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s, war is possible but not necessarily inevitable?

PRESIDENT CARTER: It’s certainly not inevitable. I think it would be suicidal on the part of the North Koreans to launch any such attack, and I think it would be– cause devastating casualties of personnel and destroyed property if the United States should attack North Korea because North Korea could respond in a formidable fashion.

So I think that it’s a tinderbox there and it needs to be worked out through, I think, direct talks between the United States of America and the North Koreans under the umbrella, to repeat myself, of the meeting that I believe that China is going to try to reassemble next month, in October.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.

PRESIDENT CARTER: It’s been a pleasure, Jim. Thank you.