January 30, 2007

Jimmy Carter's honest, if weak, assessment of Israel-Palestine conflict.

The nation of Israel was created in 1948 in historic Palestine. In the process at least 700,000 native inhabitants were driven away from their homes of centuries. The justification for this massive "collateral" damage was sought from two historical facts: the sacking of Jews from Palestine, hitherto their home, in the second century A.D; and the constant persecution of Jews in Europe, culminating in the horrors of holocaust. It was thought that the later stressed the need for a separate Jewish home land and the former provided one. Forgotten in this eloquent rationale was the plight of the 700,000 original refugees and their millions of descendants today. Any trace of moral outrage for this nakba (Arabic for disaster) has been successfully effaced from collective memory in the past half-decade. Today the respected disagreement is only over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which began only in 1967.

One school of thought has it that world has come to terms with the unfortunate, but necessary, events of 1948. There is also a debatable view that if only the later events did not take the ugly turns all would have been well now. This is the view taken by Jimmy Carter in his honest book Palestine Peace not Apartheid.

The Truman administration recognized (de facto) the state of Israel 11 minutes after its establishment. Since then America has been the strongest and most faithful ally of Israel. Ironically this support increased significantly since the inception of Israeli occupation. While it is not rare to come across voices highly critical of Israeli policies and American role in them, it is fair to say that American society remains largely supportive of Israel. Indeed it has been said that a much more serious debate on the conflict takes place in Israel. In this context it is a welcome change that a former president comes out with a suggestion of being critical of Israel.

Palestine is essentially a personal account which covers the history of the conflict, especially after Carter's presidency during 1977-80. It talks about his personal visits to the region, his personal chemistry with dramatis personae, and his perspective on what went wrong and how to fix it.

The book begins with Carter's first visit to Israel in 1973. The dominant belief at the time was that Israel's occupation (six years old) was temporary and will end, pending some agreements with the neighbors. The total number of Jewish settlers at the time was only 1500 (the number now is almost 450,000). However he also recalls encounters which suggest a deeper problem. Sure enough, four months after his visit the appearance of peace was shattered with the attack of Egypt and Syria on Israel. Israel recovered after early setbacks (thanks to timely American help) to register victory.

Carter then spends some time discussing the Camp David Accords of 1978 which produced a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. These Accords are widely seen as successful and remain models for future treaties. However Carter emphasizes the very important point that a crucial component of the Accords was Israel's commitment to implement UN Security Council (unanimous) resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) which declared that "Israel's acquisition of territory by force is illegal and that Israel must withdraw from occupied territories". The fact that Israel never really moved toward this commitment is conveniently forgotten today. Carter writes, "[f]or Menachem Begin, the peace treaty with Egypt was the significant act for Israel, while solemn promises regarding the West Bank and Palestinians would be finessed or deliberately violated."(italics mine)

This point is repeated again and again: Israel's failure to follow up on its promises. Carter is convinced that changing this attitude is key to any just solution.
The key to the future of Israel will not be found outside the country but within. It is not likely that any combination of Arab powers or even the powerful influence of the United States could force decisions on Israel concerning East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Palestinian rights, or the occupied territories of Syria.

Carter is up front on many occasions (particularly toward the end of the book) criticizing Israel's actions. For instance he says:
Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law, with the Roadmap for Peace, with official American policy, with the wishes of a majority of its own citizens - and honor its own previous commitments - by accepting its legal borders.

It does sound refreshingly honest. But it is hard to escape the feeling that Carter is walking a political tight rope here. For various reasons he does not want to appear genuinely critical of Israel. Nor does he wish to be dishonest with himself. This balancing act means there is not much chance of this book fulfilling the purpose Carter had in mind: produce a blueprint for "peace with justice in this small and unique portion of the world".

It is all very well to say that Israel must fulfill its promises. But this impotent call for peace does not take into account the ground realities. All of Carter's ideas require Israel to be nice without presenting a solid political case for why Israel will need to be nice. He fails to seriously analyze the record of Israeli actions of last 40 years.

Key leaders of Israel during the occupation era came from the "1948 generation", and Tanya Reinhart writes that they "were raised on the myth of 'redemption of land'". This is the idea that the land that once belonged (two thousand years ago) to the Jewish people should be "taken back". Unlikely as it may sound to an outsider, leaders from both poles of Israeli politics (Labor and Likud) were animated by this idea. They differed only tactically: with Labor (Rabin, Peres) supporting negotiations to annex as much of the West Bank as possible (usual figure is 35 - 40%) and Likud (Sharon) supporting more aggressive military moves. Israel also never pretended to aspire for a diverse society where Jews and Arabs might live peacefully together. This led them to create an apartheid system where the Palestinians live like second-class citizens in the occupied territories.

Without penetrative analysis going into such issues Palestine does not add a whole lot to the ongoing debate and doesn't produce any illuminating ideas. It does however provide a refreshing re-look at the conflict from a humane view point.


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