Book Review: We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land
Jimmy Carter, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
Full disclosure: 1. Jimmy Carter is one of my heroes. I voted for him when I turned 18 and took his loss to a B-grade movie actor almost as hard as he did. 2. Like Carter, I have a deep passion for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine–a just peace.
Those biases do not blind me, however. I recognize that Carter was only an average president (you have to win reelection to have a chance at being a great president, even though second terms are usually much rougher than first ones). Since his good diplomatic skills abroad were not matched with an ability to get even his own party to cooperate domestically, perhaps Carter would have made a better Secretary of State than president. Even his human rights policy wasn’t perfect–if he hadn’t backed the Shah, perhaps the Iranian revolution would not have turned in an anti-Western direction and history would have been very different. Carter’s great record in his post-presidency cannot make up for the average job he did as president.
I also know that the odds are stacked against a Middle East peace deal. In fact, the odds have been getting worse since 2001: After the collapse of the Clinton-backed talks, Ariel Sharon deliberately provoked the Second (more violent) Intifada and Arafat and the Palestinians played right into that. Whereas the first Intifada had been led by a nonviolent wing (allthough the Western media focused on those, like the stone throwing youths, who broke nonviolent discipline), the 2nd Intifada centered on suicide bombers–many of them women! Then came the Likud election of Netanyahu and then Sharon and things got continually bloodier while Bush didn’t care. Then came the re-occupation of the West Bank, Arafat a prisoner in his own compound, civilian deaths skyrocketed and the suicide bombings increased. Then Israel built its “security fence,” a huge wall that ate up miles of Palestinian land and turned large sections of the West Bank into giant open air prisons. Plus the constant bulldozing of Palestinian homes. Then, after Arafat’s death, the Palestinians became frustrated with a weakened Fatah in charge of the Palestinian Authority and elected Hamas–which led to an ever worse situation. Civil war broke out in the Territories and Fatah claimed the West Bank and Hamas got Gaza. The Hamas rocket attacks (even if mostly missing any targets) were designed to provoke a disproportionate response and they succeeded–With the Israeli total war against Gaza. Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, Israeli politics takes a sharp turn to the FAR Right. For although the Kamida Party won the most votes, they don’t have enough to form a government, not even in coalition with Labor. So, Netanyahu and Likud will return to power in coalition with rightwingers so extreme (like Avigdor Liebermann) that even the ISRAELI press likens them to “Jewish fascists.” In such a context, can any peace plan be realistic?
When Carter promoted his book and plan on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show (my favorite cable news program, hosted by the only out-lesbian in U.S. broadcast journalism–a young Rhodes scholar with a D.Phil. in political science from Oxford and a veteran of the liberal radio network, Air America–and a quirky sense of humor), Maddow asked him if the (then-upcoming) Israeli elections would make a difference in the chances for peace. He said that the particular cabinet would mean more, although he was clear that a Likud victory would be a setback. But Carter puts his hope in several facts which give us a window (but narrow one) for a lasting peace:
- Despite all the negative events and crimes on both sides, vast majorities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide (upward of 80%) still favor a two-state peace solution. No matter who is in power in either side, those numbers MUST push them to peace–especially if the U.S. and Europe prods them.
- The basic shape of a successful, lasting peace deal has been agreed to IN PRINCIPLE by all parties since the late ’70s: The Israel-Palestine borders return to the pre-1967 ones (these are the only borders that have been recognized by international law); Israel removes the Jewish settlements from Palestine and either removes the wall or moves it BACK to the border, NOT cutting off any Palestinian land; Palestine is an unarmed state except for police/security forces; Palestine gets a seaport; Jerusalem is a shared city. These are agreed to by ALL the major parties–the question is how to get there.
- A major sticking point is the problem of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Carter suggests removing only about 85% of them, leaving the settlements just outside Jerusalem. IN RETURN, Israel would trade Palestine an equal amount of land, acre by acre, to create a corridor that connects the West Bank and Gaza, making Palestine a far more viable nation state.
- Another major sticking point is the “right of return.” When Israel was founded in 1948, and again during the 1967 war, thousands of Palestinians lost their homes–some of which had been owned for 2000 years. Under international law, such refugees and their descendants are entitled to return to those homes. But if ALL the Palestinians returned to homes in Israel, they would outnumber Jewish Israelis, making a Jewish state impossible. Carter suggests that Palestine could accept in its borders the majority of returnees. Others could be compensated monetarily for lost homes.
- A solution of this kind has been proposed for years. A few years ago, the Arab League sweetened the deal for Israel: IF they would agree to such a two-state peace, then EVERY MEMBER of the Arab League would not only recognize Israel’s right to exist, but cease harboring pro-Palestinian terrorist groups and open FULL DIPLOMATIC relations with Israel. This is something Israel has wanted for over 50 years: It would greatly strengthen its security and economy. To date, only Egypt and Jordan, out of the Arab League, recognize Israel–and the recent Gaza war has led many in their publics to call for cutting off these diplomatic ties.
- There are Arabic citizens of Israel, not just in Palestine. Because Israel’s birthrate is low and Diaspora Jews no longer are moving to Israel, the high-birth Arab Israelis are threatening to soon outnumber the Jewish Israelis. This would be sped up considerably if Israel simply tried to annex the Palestinian territories. This would mean the death of a Jewish state. This demographic clock (which all in Israel know about) pushes even the most hawkish Israeli to try to find a peaceful two state solution before it runs out and demographics destroy the Israeli experiment as 50 plus years of war never could.
- There is also a clock for Palestine: the desperation and despair of the youth. The rise in suicide bombings is a sign of a lack of hope for the future. Between the settlements and the Israeli army, Palestine could soon find it impossible to HAVE a viable state.
- The Obama administration, unlike the Bush administration, is very interested in a two-state peace. Obama did not reveal just HOW MUCH he was interested in this until after the election. During the campaign he said far more about the imperative of U.S. protection of Israel than he ever did about the rights of Palestinians. It is now clear that he was keeping the pro-Israel Right from using his concern for a Middle East peace as a “wedge issue” to win the election and put the hawkish McCain in the White House. But since the election, and even more since inauguration, Obama has signalled that U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian relations are changing: He placed his first presidential overseas phone call to the head of the Palestinian Authority. He appointed George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace. (Mitchell, a former U. S. Senator, was instrumental in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. He also has street cred with both Palestinians and Israelis.) Obama has warned Israel against more Jewish settlements in the territories–even threatening to cut off U.S. military support.
So, while making peace in the Holy Land will be hard, it is not impossible. Carter’s book is a step-by-step plan to get it done and he has been advising Obama on this since the election. And Carter, we remember, negotiated the 1978 Camp David Accords which led directly to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty– not one line of which has ever been violated.
It seems to me that the level of distrust between Palestinians and Israelis is the major obstacle to peace–and requires outside intervention. The U.S. must be a major player not because of any U.S. peace virtues (if we even HAVE any) but because we are the one nation Israel CANNOT ignore–they depend heavily upon us for economic and military support. The European Union and the Arab League must be deeply involved because Palestinians need them.
Like Carter, I have deep faith-based reasons to care deeply about this: Christians are to be peacemakers; we have a sense of solidarity with Palestinian Christians–many of whose communities date back to the very first generation of Christians; we have a sense of solidarity with Jews because our faith is the daughter of Judaism; we have (or should have) a sense of solidarity with mainstream Muslims because ours is a sister faith. We want a peaceful land that is Holy to all 3 of the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths. We won’t agree on whether Jesus is the Messiah or the Son of God (God has no children, say Muslims and the Trinity is disguised polytheism say Jews), but we have much else in common and deep reasons to see peace come to the Holy Land. For Carter this is the cause of his life because he believes it is the very will of God.
But American citizens, whether or not they share anything like Carter’s religious reasons for working for Middle East peace, have deep reasons of self interest to push for success here. 1)The plight of the Palestinians is the NUMBER ONE recruiting tool for extremist, anti-Western Islamist groups that promote violence and terrorism. Some of them, like Hezbollah, are sincere, but many are simply cynically using the Palestinians for their own ends. In any case, a two-state peace robs these groups of their single biggest recruiting tool. It robs Hezbollah of a reason to exist! As Arab League nations said to then-Sec. of State Colin Powell in 2002 when he was trying to recruit allies for the invasion of Iraq–it would be better to make peace between Israel and Palestine. Such a peace is the single-biggest blow to Islamist terorists possible. 2) The U.S.’ apparent one-sided support for Israel channels this concern for the Palestinians into a hatred of America if such hatred were not there previously. 3) The Israel/Palestine fued and series of wars and crises is a drain on U.S. resources: in terms of the level of military support to Israel (our largest % of foreign aid, of all types, is military aid to Israel) and in terms of constant drain on our diplomatic resources. 4) The constant humanitarian crises in Palestine is also a drain on our resources–an economically stable and peaceful Palestine would not need such support from either Europe or the U.S. 5) We get a constant influx of Palestinian refugees into the United States–it’s amazing that none of the anti-immigrant Lou Dobbs types don’t rail against this. Our already over stressed social safety net (whose strength was eroded by GOP fiscal priorities long before the current economic crisis) doesn’t need the added burden–and it is inevitable that a few extremists come in with the legitimate refugees. 6) A prosperous and peaceful Israel and Palestine could import U.S. exports, helping us get out of recession.
So, there are many compelling pragmatic as well as moral reasons to invest heavily in Middle East peace. It won’t be easy–and the recent Israeli elections are the biggest obstacle since the Palestinians elected Hamas! But it CAN be done–and Jimmy Carter’s book outlines the way forward.
UPDATE: Even as he is forming his government, new PM Netanyahu is telling reporters that he will work with Obama for peace with Palestine. While his past record should make us skeptical, we should also see this as a hopeful sign that even Netanyahu realizes that the political context has changed. Now, if only Obama will push all parties equally instead of returning to the usual U.S. carrot and stick policy: all carrots for Israel and all sticks for Palestine.
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