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Carter Reflects on Middle East Conflict, Obama’s Diplomatic Road Ahead

January 28, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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As President Obama tries to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, former President Carter has come out with a new book, "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work." In an interview, Mr. Carter reflects on the book and the diplomatic road ahead.
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MARGARET WARNER: As the Obama administration tries to reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, former President Carter has come out with a new book, “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work.”

Three decades ago, as president, he brokered the Camp David Accords of 1978 between Israel and Egypt. His 2006 book on the Middle East subject, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” sparked controversy for comparing the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians to racial apartheid in 20th-century South Africa.

And President Carter joins me now.

And welcome, Mr. President.

JIMMY CARTER, Former President of the United States: Good to be here. Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: After 15 years of stalemate in the Middle East peace process and this conflict in Gaza, you’re still arguing here that the time is ripe for a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Explain.

JIMMY CARTER: There are two reasons. One is a generic reason, that Israel is facing a crucial choice between one state or two states. One state will be a disaster for Israel, as all of their leaders have acknowledged publicly, but that’s the way they’re going now.

And the other one is the new president in the White House and his commitment to begin to work on the Middle East at the beginning of his administration and not wait until later in his term.

And his choice of a envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is absolutely superb, and it shows that he’s going to take a more balanced position between the Israelis and their neighbors and, secondly, that he’s chosen a man who has proven he’s one of the best negotiators on Earth, having brought about peace in Northern Ireland. And he’s very familiar with the Middle East, as well.

So those reasons are what I believe are good indications that it’s going to be a time for reconciliation.

MARGARET WARNER: When you say a more balanced position, what do you mean?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think he sees, rather than just representing the Israeli point of view, as some of the other envoys have done, being very closely tied publicly and professionally to Israel, George Mitchell, I think, does have an equal, balanced point of view between the Palestinian points of need and the Israelis’.

And he’s proven that by his earlier analysis under President Clinton of the situation in the West Bank, so that, I think, shows that it’s going to be a very strong move.

Presidential leadership is key

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
(President Bush) never interceded in the actual negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And he discouraged any negotiation between the Israelis and the Syrians concerning the Golan Heights.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in this book, you say that it's going to take courageous -- I think you said courageously -- U.S. presidential leadership to make this happen.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: What is the single most important difference you think President Obama should do, as compared to President Bush in the end of his term?

JIMMY CARTER: Become actively involved and let them know that he is going to put forward a plan that the United States devises that are objective, and fair, and honest, and acceptable to both sides.

President Bush never did that. He never interceded in the actual negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And he discouraged any negotiation between the Israelis and the Syrians concerning the Golan Heights. I think that Obama will do just the opposite on those two things.

But if and when we reach a point in negotiations when the Palestinians say, "We're not going to accept this; it's not everything we want," and the Israelis says, "We're not going to accept this; it's more than we want to do," then that's when the president of the United States has got to say, "This is what I think is fair to both sides, and we're going to use all our influence to make sure that the people accept it."

And if it is a balanced plan, which I think it can be, as described in my book, then I believe the people of Israel and the people of Palestine will say, "We accept it."

Hamas question is difficult

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
First of all, you're going to have to have reconciliation between the Hamas and Fatah, and that has to come about because Hamas now governs 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza -- the ones that are left.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the book, you argue, as you have in the past, that the U.S. simply must engage with Hamas, there must be some sort of dialogue. So what would you recommend to President Obama that he do in that regard?

JIMMY CARTER: I don't think it's appropriate at this early stage to deal directly with Hamas. That's too controversial in this country, and it would be too upsetting to Israelis, although, when I met over to meet with Hamas in April of last year, there was a poll in Israel that was reported in the Washington Post, as well as the Israeli news media, that 64 percent of the Israeli people said that Israel should and would have to negotiate directly with Hamas.

And all three leaders of the intelligence agencies in Israel said the same thing. And so did some distinguished American leaders, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. was part of the so-called quartet, along with countries, in the U.N. that said, back in '06, we're not going to deal with Hamas unless it recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces the use of terrorism and violence to achieve destruction of Israel.

JIMMY CARTER: I remember.

MARGARET WARNER: How could any American president go back on that?

JIMMY CARTER: Well, in the first place, it's going to have to be a step-by-step process. First of all, you're going to have to have reconciliation between the Hamas and Fatah, and that has to come about because Hamas now governs 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza -- the ones that are left -- and Hamas has an undescribable support in the West Bank. Their support has grown tremendously since the attack on Gaza. So Hamas represents a large portion of the total population of Palestinians. That's the first thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though it did take power -- total power in Gaza through a coup, essentially.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, but they won -- you have to remember, they won the election fairly and squarely in January of 2006. They got 43 percent of the popular vote and a majority of the members of the parliament. So they are the elected government.

And the government that now governs for Fatah in the West Bank is not an elected government. It's a rump government or an appointed government. But, anyway, that's the first thing, that is, reconciliation between the two.

And Hamas has committed to me personally and publicly that they will accept any peace agreement that's negotiated between the Palestinians and Israel provided it's submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum and the Palestinian people approve it or either if there's a unified government formed.

So that's a very good step forward. And I think that that will go a long way toward making it possible for the United States and the rest of the world to say, "OK, let's deal with Hamas."

Two-state solution reasonable

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
The only solution that is reasonable is a two-state solution.

MARGARET WARNER: Going back to the position Israel finds itself in, you say in the book that leading Palestinian figures have told you that, if they don't get their own state pretty soon, they are just going to start demanding the right to be Israeli citizens. Do you think that's a real threat?

JIMMY CARTER: They're already doing that, not because of me, but they're doing it publicly. I mean, even the most prominent ones -- in fact, I know the "60 Minutes" program this past weekend had a long segment just on that same subject.

But that would be a catastrophe for Israel, to have a one-state solution. A one-state solution means that you only have one nation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, instead of divided into two parts. And there are already a majority of non-Jews in that one state, and there will soon be a majority of Arabs alone.

And so what Israel would have to do -- and they don't want to do any of these -- is either have ethnic cleansing -- that is, force the Palestinians to leave the West Bank and Gaza -- and Egypt, and Jordan, and Lebanon don't want to accept them -- or deprive the citizens of that one state of a right to vote, which they don't want to do, or let the Palestinians have a majority and control the government. Then you wouldn't have any more Jewish state.

So the only solution that is reasonable is a two-state solution.

Defining 'apartheid'

Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President
Apartheid means -- officially means that when two peoples occupy the same land and they are forcibly segregated one from another, totally, and one group completely dominates the other.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, actually, in the introduction to this book...

JIMMY CARTER: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: ... you seek to explain why you used the word "apartheid," the provocative word "apartheid," in the title of your last book.

JIMMY CARTER: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you regret that?

JIMMY CARTER: No, not at all. I wanted to create some altercation, some debate. When I wrote this book two-and-a-half years ago, there was no debate in this country about the two sides at all. And we had not had one single day of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in over five years.

So I wanted to precipitate some change. And I carefully drafted the title -- it doesn't have any punctuation in it -- "Palestine," not Israel, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." That's the title. The word apartheid was taken out of -- overly emphasized.

Apartheid means -- officially means that when two peoples occupy the same land and they are forcibly segregated one from another, totally, and one group completely dominates the other. That's what apartheid is. It doesn't have to have racial connotations like they did in South Africa.

MARGARET WARNER: Former President Jimmy Carter, thank you.

JIMMY CARTER: I've enjoyed it.