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Former President Jimmy Carter Examines Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

November 28, 2006 at 10:41 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: The former president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner has just written his 21st book. It is called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

That title has brought some sharp critiques from Americans sympathetic to Israel, and its publications comes amid both renewed tensions and some peaceful gestures between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Carter, it’s good to see you. Thanks for being with us.

JIMMY CARTER, Former President of the United States: It’s nice to be with you. Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The title, you chose, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Did you mean to be provocative, because this immediately calls to mind South Africa, the repression of blacks by whites?

JIMMY CARTER: Yes. But I don’t consider the word “provocative” to be negative. I wanted to provoke…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The word “apartheid.”

JIMMY CARTER: The whole title, I wanted to provoke discussion, debate, inquisitive analysis of the situation there, which is almost completely absent throughout the United States, but it’s prevalent every day in Israel and in Europe. This is needed, I think, for our country to understand what’s going on in the West Bank.

And I chose this title very carefully. It’s Palestine, first of all. This is the Palestinians’ territory, not Israel.

Secondly, the emphasis is on peace.

And the third thing is not apartheid. I don’t want to see apartheid. And since now the entire peace process is completely dormant, there hasn’t been one day for good faith substantive negotiations in the last six years to bring peace to Israel, I wanted to rejuvenate this process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you say it’s dormant, and yet today Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announcing she’s going to meet with the leader of the Palestinians, Mr. Abbas, later this week. Isn’t that a sign of progress, potential progress?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, a sign of progress — to talk to one side and then talk to the other is very nice. But I’m talking about there hasn’t been a day of negotiation orchestrated or promoted by the United States between Israel and the Palestinians in six years.

And for all practical purposes, it is dormant. I don’t mean that the United States has not visited Israel; I don’t mean that the secretary of state hasn’t talked to the Israelis and the Palestinians.

And let me get to the word “apartheid.” Apartheid doesn’t apply at all, as I made plain in my book, anything that relates to Israel to the nation. It doesn’t imply anything as it relates to racism. This apartheid, which is prevalent throughout the occupied territories, the subjection of the Palestinians to horrible abuse, is caused by a minority of Israelis — we’re not talking about racism, but talking about their desire to acquire, to occupy, to confiscate, and then to colonize Palestinian land.

So the whole system is designed to separate through a ferocious system Israelis who live on Palestine territory and Palestinians who want to live on their own territory.

Peace efforts and withdrawal

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
In order to have peace, Israel has got to withdraw from the occupied territories, not just from token withdrawals from a few settlements leaving about 150 other settlements on Palestinian land.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, again, your book comes out at a moment when, not only you have Dr. Rice saying she's going to meet with the Palestinian leader, you have the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Olmert, announcing just yesterday that he is putting a proposal on the table.

He's saying, "We will give back most of the West Bank. We will get out most of the West Bank." He's saying, "We will release prisoners, if there will be a good-faith effort on the part of the Palestinians." Is this the kind of progress you're looking for?

JIMMY CARTER: I think that's a minor first step, yes, to give back some of their land. The demand is for them to give back all the land.

The United Nations resolutions that apply, the agreements that have been made at Camp David under me and later at Oslo for which the Israeli leaders received the Nobel Peace Prizes, was based on Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories.

And the present only game in town -- that is, the international quartet's road map -- calls for the withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories. That road map, by the way, all of the terms of it have been adopted by the Palestinians. All the major terms of the road map have been rejected officially by the Israeli government.

So this is what's created this quagmire and what I consider to be a total inaction for the first time in the history of Israel. We've been six years now without any negotiations for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are you dismissing what Mr. Olmert is proposing as of yesterday?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, the New York Times said it was a non-substantive speech that didn't bring anything new to the table. I haven't read the entire speech, so I haven't analyzed it that thoroughly.

But when he says we're going to withdraw from part of the process, part of the land that we're occupying, and keep the rest, we're going to keep our wall there, which surrounds the remnant of the Palestinians' land that they're going to be permitted to live on, where we're going to keep Israeli settlements all over the land even that the Palestinians will retain, and keep the wall around Gaza, all of these things need to be changed and not just a token withdrawal from some of the land that the Israelis have acquired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying it's not nearly enough?

JIMMY CARTER: No, it's not nearly enough, and everybody knows that. In fact, the international community, all the policy of the United States' government since Israel was founded as a nation, the agreements that the Israelis have adopted -- a strong majority of the Israeli people all agree that, in order to have peace, Israel has got to withdraw from the occupied territories, not just from token withdrawals from a few settlements leaving about 150 other settlements on Palestinian land.

Accepting Hamas' victory

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
And as a matter of fact, Hamas, whom everyone criticizes -- the fact is that Hamas, since August of 2004, has not committed a single act of terrorism that cost an Israeli life, not a single one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Carter, people would listen to what you're saying here, and they would read your book, and they would say, "He's putting the onus here on the Israelis." And many would return that by saying, "But wait a minute. It's the Palestinians who continue to fire rockets into Israeli land. It's the Palestinians who have kidnapped Israeli soldiers. It's the Palestinians that continue to perpetuate terrorist acts against the Israelis."

JIMMY CARTER: Sure, that's what you say, and that's the general consensus in the United States. The fact is that, when the Palestinians dug under the Israeli wall from Gaza and captured the Israeli soldier, one soldier, at that time, Israel was holding 9,200 Palestinians prisoner, including 300 children, almost 300, 293 children, some of them 12 years old, and holding almost 100 women prisoner.

And immediately, the Palestinians who took that soldier said, "We want to swap this soldier for some of our women and children." And the Israelis rejected that proposal and refused to swap at all with the Palestinians in the West Bank. That was the key to the issue.

So it's right that the Palestinians took a soldier, which they should release. But for Israel to keep 9,000 Palestinians and not release any of them is something that you don't mention in the question, and it's generally not even known in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we want to give you the opportunity to give that side of the story...

JIMMY CARTER: That's why I wrote the book.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... as well, and that's why we're here talking to you about it.

JIMMY CARTER: I know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what would you say, President Carter, to the Israeli public who would, again, listen to what you're saying, and they would say, "Wait a minute. You're asking us to put our faith in a people, in a government that doesn't even recognize our right to exist?" Isn't that the posture of the Hamas government and the Palestinian territories?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, we were there -- the Carter Center was there, and we monitored the election in January when Hamas did win a victory. They won 42 percent of the vote. It was an open, free, fair, safe election, as certified by the Carter Center, and National Democratic Institute, and the European Union observers. Nobody questioned the integrity of it.

That was an expression of will by the Palestinian people on whom they wanted to serve in their parliament. Well, at that time, I thought that this would be a matter of a unity government. But immediately, the United States and Israel said, "We will not accept a government that has Hamas leaders in it."

And so, as a result of that, all financial aid to the entire population of Palestine was cut off just because they expressed their will in a free vote. And as a matter of fact, Hamas, whom everyone criticizes -- the fact is that Hamas, since August of 2004, has not committed a single act of terrorism that cost an Israeli life, not a single one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think many Americans would be surprised to hear that.

JIMMY CARTER: I know. They would be surprised, but it's an actual fact. And Hamas...

Recognizing Israel

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
A majority of Israelis, in every public opinion poll that's been done since 1967, have favored exchanging the confiscated Palestinian land for peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about not recognizing Israel's right to exist?

JIMMY CARTER: The day after the election, I went and met with Mahmoud Abbas, who is the leader of the Palestinians. He's their president. He's the head of the PLO, which is the only organization, by the way, that the United States or Israel recognizes, the PLO, in which there's not a single Hamas member. Hamas has nothing to do with the PLO.

And after I met with Abbas to talk about a unity government, which he rejected, then I met with a Hamas leader. He's a medical doctor who was elected. He's now in prison, by the way. But he said -- when I insisted that they recognize Israel, he said, "Mr. President, which Israel are you talking about? Are you talking about the Israel that's occupying our land? Are you talking about the Israel that has built a wall around our people? Are you talking about an Israel that deprives us of basic human rights to move from one place to another in our own land?" He said, "We can't recognize that Israel."

But later, the prime minister of the Hamas government, Haniyeh, said, "We are strongly in favor of direct talks between Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PLO and the head of the government, and the prime minister of Israel, Olmert." And he said, "If they reach an agreement in their discussions that's acceptable to the Palestinian people, we will accept it, also. Hamas will."

Those things are not even known in this country; they're a matter of record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that, if the U.S. doesn't get involved, then...

JIMMY CARTER: Then there won't be much progress. You know, it's been proven in the past that some outside group needs to get involved. And in 1978 and '79, I got involved and negotiated a peace treaty between Israel and its only formidable opponent, that is Egypt.

In 2003, the Norwegians concluded an agreement, the Oslo Agreement. In both cases, the Israeli leaders won the Nobel Peace Prize for adopting the principles that Israel would withdraw from the territory in order to get peace. That has been abandoned now under the last three leaders of Israel.

And as I said earlier, a majority of Israelis, in every public opinion poll that's been done since 1967, have favored exchanging the confiscated Palestinian land for peace. But there's a small minority in Israel, a substantial minority, that says we would prefer the land, and we will not relinquish it in order to get peace.

Effect on situation in Iraq

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
The main obstacle for their full support of the United States now in Iraq and other places is because we have not shown any interest for the last six years in alleviating the horrible plight of the Palestinians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick final question about Iraq. Can you have peace in Iraq without fixing the Israeli-Palestinian problem, or is it vice versa? Do you must -- you first need to fix Iraq?

JIMMY CARTER: There is no way to separate the two. President Bush is over there now trying to harness supporters among the moderate Arabs. He just was in Jordan, and in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and others that I need not name right now.

To get them to support us enthusiastically in Iraq means that he's going to have to alleviate their deep concern and their animosity -- with less than 5 percent of Jordanians and Egyptians looking with favor on our government -- because the main obstacle for their full support of the United States now in Iraq and other places is because we have not shown any interest for the last six years in alleviating the horrible plight of the Palestinians.

We've made no effort in the last six years to bring peace to Israel or to their adjacent neighbors, the Palestinians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Jimmy Carter, with some passionately held views. We thank you very much for being with us on the NewsHour. We appreciate it.

JIMMY CARTER: I always enjoy being with you and on the NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much.

JIMMY CARTER: It's a pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good to see you.

JIMMY CARTER: Thanks, Judy.