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President Carter Q&A on Middle East

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter led a mission to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan April 13-21, 2008, as part of the Carter Center's ongoing effort to support peace, democracy, and human rights in the region. Accompanying him were former First Lady Rosalynn Carter; son Jeffrey Carter; former U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz; Dr. Robert Pastor, senior Carter Center advisor; and Hrair Balian, director of the Center's Conflict Resolution Program.

Q: You have been working to build peace in the Middle East for more than 30 years. Why is this issue so important to you personally?

Having studied Bible lessons since early childhood and taught them since I was a college student, I was infatuated with the Holy Land long before my interest took on an entirely new significance when I became president of the United States. Since then, one of my major goals has been to help assure a lasting peace for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East. It is certainly one of the most fascinating and truly important political and military subjects of modern times. Instability in the region has not only produced widespread terrorism, it is and has been a persistent threat to world peace. My hope is that violent conflict will end and democracy and human rights will be strengthened.

Q: Why did you go to the Middle East last spring?

I wanted to consult with all the major actors in the conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors, probe for possible reconciliation, and then make a public report that would delineate the options available for others to make tangible moves toward peace agreements.

Q: Given that most Israelis (64 percent according to a recent Haaretz-Dialog poll) support direct talks between Israel and Hamas, why do you think Israel and the United States have resisted this course? And, why is it essential to include Hamas?

Hamas has not accepted the PLO's commitments in the Oslo Agreements that recognized the "right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security" and that renounced the use of violence. Nevertheless, the United States encouraged the January 2006 Palestinian elections in which Hamas emerged with a majority of parliamentary seats. Subsequently, the elected government including Hamas was not allowed to continue in power and 31 of its elected candidates are now in prison. On the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority operates under an interim government led by President Abbas. Hamas took over authority in Gaza. Realistically, peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be sustained without the participation of both parties.

Q: After having talks with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, do you feel any more or less optimistic about the prospect for peace in the Middle East?

I am more optimistic about the possibilities for peace. In our discussions I found him to be careful, serious, and frank. He agreed for Hamas to accept any peace agreement negotiated between the leaders of the PLO and Israel provided it was subsequently approved by Palestinians in a referendum or by a democratically elected government, and also to have a long term ceasefire in the West Bank and Gaza.

Q: What do you think the trip accomplished?

We believe we accomplished five objectives: 1] to help leaders in the region understand that genuine peace requires including the "spoilers" in the process rather than isolating or marginalizing them; 2] to narrow the distance between Hamas and Israel on a truce in and around Gaza, resulting in a ceasefire since June; 3] to publicize the acceptance by Hamas of a potential Abbas-Olmert two-state agreement if Palestinians approved it in a referendum; 4] to help advance Syrian-Israeli negotiations by urging Israel to acknowledge the back-channel talks mediated by Turkey and urging the U.S. to support this effort; 5] and to persuade Hamas to allow a letter from the captive Israeli Cpl. Schalit to his parents.

Q: Many people feel that the situation in this region is beyond hope. What would you say to them?

There are truly serious obstacles to peace, but I nevertheless believe this is a time for hope and not despair. The outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are clear. Polls consistently indicate that the majority of both groups are willing to compromise to reach peace. Agreements with Syria and Lebanon also are within reach.

Q: What can The Carter Center do in the future to make a difference in the region?

After our visit, we stayed in contact with political leaders and others in the region. Center staff members have returned for consultations and resident representatives in Ramallah give us regular reports. We also are adding offices in Jerusalem and Gaza.

We have an almost unique ability among outsiders to work quietly with the Israelis, Lebanese, Fatah, Hamas, Egypt, and the Syrians, and this could be helpful. There also is potential to play a role in reconciling the major Palestinian factions as an unavoidable prerequisite to a comprehensive peace.

For more than a quarter century we have worked closely with B'Tselem, Al Haq, and other courageous human rights organizations in Israel and Palestine. We are assisting Palestinian university students who have become trapped in Gaza to gain permission to leave and join universities to which they have been admitted. We also hope to observe the next elections for the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2009.

Q: There have been a lot of rumors about funding for The Carter Center and whether gifts from Arabs have shaped your opinions on the Middle East. Could you respond to that?

Of the total amount of contributions The Carter Center has received since its founding in 1982, only 2.6 percent has been from donors in Mideast Arab nations. Seventy-two percent of those funds have helped to support health programs in Africa, 20 percent have gone to our endowment, 4 percent were for original construction of buildings at our headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and 4 percent for projects to directly promote peace, such as specific election observations.

Rosalynn and I have never received salaries from The Carter Center, and the honorariums we receive for awards or speeches have been contributed to The Carter Center or other charitable organizations, including funds from the Nobel Peace Prize.