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Middle East Peace: New Opportunities

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in the The Washington Quarterly, 1987 Summer, Vol. 10, No. 3; Pg. 2

Former President Jimmy Carter has established the Carter Presidential Center at Emory University to promote the understanding and resolution of international conflict. This article is based on remarks President Carter made at the Center for Strategic and International Studies following his Winter 1987 trip to the Middle East.

Leadership entails a rare ability to project a credible vision of a preferred future. In this cluster, two leaders set their sights on essential national challenges. Former President Jimmy Carter outlines significant new opportunities to advance the process of building peace in the Middle East, and calls upon the United States to reinvigorate its leadership in that region. CSIS President Amos Jordan delineates a comprehensive national strategy for the 1990s and analyzes the uneven process whereby the United States generates its strategy.

Peace in the Middle East remains one of the most elusive goals of the peoples of that region and indeed of the nations of the world. Instability and violence continue to mar the area more than eight years after the breakthroughs at Camp David. The goal of peace in the Middle East should be a central part of the foreign policy of the United States, for agreement there continues to be as important to our national security as any potential arms control agreement between the superpowers.

Pessimists tell us that the so-called peace process has ground to a permanent halt. Some blame the inevitable intensity of regional animosities. Many blame the apparent willingness of key nations to live with long-term military stalemate. Yet others cite the lack of involvement by the United States in recent years.

I am not overly optimistic, but I have hope. There is no doubt that the people of the region desperately want peace. Also, an end to conflict is in the national interests of the countries in the region and of the United States, which has tangible strategic interests in the region. The October War of 1973 proved that military conflict in the Middle East could be one of the shortest routes to superpower confrontation with its severe risks and costs. My hopefulness stems from a reading of the political dynamics of the area. New opportunities exist to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East but, by and large, the U.S. policy community has so far chosen to overlook those opportunities. Only through a reassertion of U.S. commitment, active involvement, and creative risk-taking can we capitalize on existing opportunities to move forward. Without our restoring some momentum to the process of moving toward peace, however, it is almost certain to recede ever further beyond our grasp.

My trip to the Middle East in the spring of 1987 provided valuable new insights into regional political dynamics. There have been important improvements on the Arab side since my last visit to the region four years ago, especially in terms of an emerging consensus in support of an international peace conference. There is a growing realization that the negotiations between Egypt and Israel have produced some benefits for the region, thus bolstering the perception that negotiations with Israel can work. Although the recent Iran-contra scandal has cut deeply, damaging the United States' prestige and influence in the Middle East, Washington is still accepted as a player that can provide the key to progress. Influential Israeli leaders appear willing to embrace some of the opportunities posed by changing Arab attitudes. These tends and possibilities are detailed in the following pages.

Egypt: Vibrant Democracy Committed to Peace

On this most recent visit to Egypt, I was surprised and pleased by the degree of democracy prevailing in that country today. The election of April 6 was almost totally unconstrained. The press seems completely free. Opposition parties flourish. Leaders in academic and other circles are unrestrained in commenting on and criticizing the Mubarak administration. I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. President Hosni Mubarak deserves a great deal of credit for this unprecedented and unanticipated achievement.

In terms of regional peace, I was impressed again with the deep commitment of the Egyptians to any additional move now that might extend the peace process beyond the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the peace treaty of 1979. Egypt feels vulnerable because no further progress has been made. Its relative isolation in the Arab world continues, though Egypt has indeed been reconstituting its position with a fair degree of success. The recent vitriolic exchange between Mubarak and Syrian President Hafez el-Assad during the Islamic conference in Kuwait ended on the positive side for Egypt. Based on what I was told throughout my trip, Mubarak came out ahead among the other Arab nations, who refused Assad's demand that the Camp David process be condemned and abrogated. There is also a growing realization in the Arab world that at least Egypt has demonstrated the benefits of direct negotiations with Israel.

However, Egypt continues to be condemned for its ostensible abandonment of Palestinian rights. In my view, this condemnation is misplaced. Sadat did more to enhance Palestinian rights than any other Arab leader. The Egyptians retain their close ties to the PLO, and given the strains between the PLO and Jordan and between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Syria, Mubarak has been particularly careful to keep intact the opening between Egypt and the PLO leadership. Mubarak has also been acting as something of an intermediary between the PLO and Jordan.

Egyptian attitudes toward Israel continue to be ambivalent. Although the peace treaty itself is overwhelmingly appreciated, there is a widespread perception that without the treaty Israel would not have invaded Lebanon, that then Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon felt more free to move into Lebanon with impunity, knowing that Egypt was neutralized as a military adversary. On the other hand, the peace treaty is intact and, with the exception of Taba, all of the formal issues between Egypt and Israel have been resolved. The Egyptians look to the resolution of the Taba dispute later this year through arbitration, which appears mutually suitable. I share their view that arbitration will adequately support the Egyptian claim. A consensus seems to have emerged in Egypt that the best hope for Middle East peace is through an international peace conference, providing for direct bilateral negotiations on all outstanding issues by the regional actors. Egypt will either stand aloof or participate, whichever seems more constructive. I believe we can comfortably trust a democratic Egypt to participate effectively and constructively.

The trip also provided tangible evidence of the damage done by the Iran-contra scandal. There was resentment toward and disappointment in the U.S. government. Mubarak had earlier followed up on the strong entreaties of U.S. leaders to use his influence in the Arab world and elsewhere to prohibit any additional sales of weapons to Iran; King Hussein of Jordan had done the same. Both were embarrassed by the sale of U.S. weapons to forces of the Ayatollah Khomeini and wondered how the United States could possibly overlook the very serious regional consequences of an ultimate Iranian military victory. But the damage is not permanent. Over time it can and will be assuaged.

Syria: Credible Pragmatism

Because of heavy military commitments, several recent years of drought, and reductions in workers' remittances and financial aid from other Arab countries, Syria's economic burdens are an impetus toward peace. The overwhelming friendship of the Syrian people shown me on each of my visits there is an encouraging sign. Whether on the streets, in the holy places, or the market areas of Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere, hundreds of people will gather to shake hands, applaud, or shout out the word "peace." This is a personal illustration of the fact that the people of Syria deeply desire peace.

Syria hardly enjoys the flourishing democracy of Egypt, however, and one need only talk to Hafez el-Assad to determine Syrian interests and policy. Assad is subject to legitimate condemnation for many things, and is very negative about some matters. He retains his condemnation of the Camp David Accords as a bilateral agreement that failed to create harmony within the Arab world and abandoned Palestinian rights. He is in a position to play a disruptive role, whether through pressure on the PLO, on Jordan and other moderate Arabs, and through obstructionist tactics as Islamic or Arab conferences. It is clear that without Assad's tacit participation it would be very difficult if not impossible to initiate or to consummate an international agreement or an international conference. His attitudes toward regional peace deserve our fullest attention. His policies and interests are complex, but after 10 full hours with him during the few days I was in Syria I gained a modest degree of hope that Assad may be willing to be less rigid in the future than he has been in the last decades. At the very least, I found Assad willing to talk seriously about my own ideas of why it would be beneficial to Syria to participate constructively in renovating or rejuvenating the peace process. Three features of our discussion suggested some important changes in his positions and perceptions.

First, in a very significant development, Assad has revised his previous thinking and supports the notion of an international peace conference. He authorized me to announce this decision and Syria's agreement to participate in such a negotiation, either as part of an overall Arab delegation or as an individual country. Within the context of such a conference, he recognizes the need for direct negotiations with Israel. I am convinced that this was no subterfuge.

Although Syria had not participated actively in the brief 1973 meeting under UN Resolution 338, Assad expressed a willingness to take part in a potential international conference when he and I first met in Geneva in 1977. Later that year, he made a constructive proposal concerning Palestinian participation that could have made the international conference possible. Shortly thereafter, President Anwar Sadat made his decision to go to Jerusalem, the Camp David process was set in motion, and the bitter Arab criticism of the bilateral approach and absence of PLO representation emerged. Today the hardened Syrian positions appear to be giving way to less strident ones that show constructive flexibility.

Second, Assad recognizes that he has a severe, costly image problem. He indicates his eagerness to move beyond the damage done to his standing and that of Syria in the general international community because of terrorism. Although he denies clupability, there is no doubt that his country has been seriously hurt by it. I would be surprised if terrorist acts occur in the near future with his knowledge or approval. His statements that he has always prohibited terrorist acts by members of the Abu Nidal group originating in Syria have been contradicted by credible sources. Whether he can fully control all of the groups in Syria today even if he wants to is another important question.

Publicly at least, Assad has attempted to take a constructive approach to the problem of terrorism. He proposed a resolution to the Islamic conference in Kuwait that was approved unanimously, and has carried the proposal to the United Nations. His idea is to find an internationally acceptable way to define acts of terrorism and to separate them from legitimate acts of national liberation. He, like the Algerian leaders, differentiates between hijackings, the taking of innocent hostages, and deliberate attacks on civilians as acts of terrorism, as opposed to actions of national liberation as by the American colonists of 200 years ago, of Algerians against France, of Lebanese against Israeli troops, and of Begin's Irgun against Great Britain. When defined, he proposes concerted international action to control and punish terrorist acts. Whether or not the proposal is feasible or sincere, the energy invested in it demonstrates Assad's deep concern about his nation's image as a haven for terrorists.

We discussed other matters of interest. Assad acknowledged Arafat's role as a spokesman for the Palestinians in helping to orchestrate an international peace conference. He expressed satisfaction with his communication and correspondence with Jordan. Like Mubarak, Assad seems willing to let Hussein be the spokesman for the Arab side. He professed his irritation with the U.S. government over his treatment at the time of the TWA airliner hijacking. Assad felt that he marshaled his nation's full resources to try to resolve the case and get the passengers released, and that in response he was insulted rather than thanked by the United States. (Evidently, U.S. condemnation was based on evidence, subsequently disproven, of a Syrian role in the hijacking itself.) He has cut back the number of Soviet advisers in Syria to one-third of what it was in the 1970s, and those who remain are largely isolated from the Syrian populace.

Jordan: Embittered Ally

I found that bitterness was the key word to describe current Jordanian attitudes toward the United States. The shipment of U.S. arms to Iran was as embarrassing and disappointing to Hussein as it had been to Mubarak. But that episode was only the latest in a series of events that proved frustrating to the Jordanians. They feel that in both 1983 and 1985, support from Washington for the peace process was equivocal, at best. Hussein feels that his courageous efforts to keep the peace possibilities alive have been rewarded with a sharp curtailing of U.S. economic aid and a refusal to sell much-needed weapons to Jordan. The Jordanians do not think that this is proper compensation for a loyal ally and a strong peace proponent. They perceive tepid interest in Washington for an international peace conference.

I do not share all of King Hussein's perspectives, but I was convinced of the strength of his sense of betrayal. As a former U.S. president, I think it appropriate to note that Congress has begun to play in excessive and not altogether constructive role in terms of our foreign policy toward Jordan. Congress has been mistaken in its opposition to the sale to Jordan of essentially defensive weapons. Such opposition has been damaging to Jordan, to our relationship with moderate Jordanian leaders, and to our image as a responsible and fairly objective superpower.

King Hussein must play an integral role in any successful peace effort, both on his own and as a coordinator of the Palestinian effort. Under the right circumstances, there could well be a resumption of the discussions between Hussein and Arafat. Although Hussein has expressed his condemnation of Arafat and is currently excluding him from his discussions, there is a presumption in Jordan that the terms of the Amman Accord of February 1985 are still viable.

Israel: Ambivalent Partner

The Israelis are deeply divided over the concept of an international peace conference -- particularly the current government. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has endorsed the concept, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has a supportive attitude. The recent Likud Party convention voted against participation in an international conference, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir made a public statement that he would never approve the withdrawal of Israeli forces from any portion of the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza. Shamir never voted for the Camp David Accords -- always opposing or refraining -- and his interpretation of those accords is incompatible with those of the principals who negotiated them at Camp David. It is possible that there may be some members of the Likud coalition who are more amenable to such a conference -- though I have no evidence of this at this time.

The interesting question is how Israel will resolve the dilemma of having two foreign policies -- one conducted by Foreign Minister Peres, who has a great deal of autonomy in this area, and another conducted by Prime Minister Shamir. The peace issue is certain to loom large in the next Israeli national election, which some Labor Party leaders are pushing for sooner rather than, as scheduled, in October 1988.

The Palestinians: The Leadership Issue

The Palestinian community is divided. This message came through clearly in lengthy, frank talks with dozens of Palestinian leaders. They feel neglected by their Arab brothers and physically abused by the Israelis, as they complete their twentieth year of life under military occupation. They are very bitter at their plight in the West Bank and Gaza -- economically, socially, and politically. They are concerned about the new generation of Palestinians, those of college age, who have never known anything but military occupation, and are becoming increasingly militant. They claim that colleges on the West Bank are staying open now only about four months per year; the rest of the time the students are idle or confronting Israeli troops.

Almost universally, the Palestinians profess publicly and privately that the PLO represents them and that Arafat is their spokesman. Some are willing to accept Hussein's representation, though it is clear that he can speak with authority only as leader of a joint delegation including delegates approved by the leaders of the PLO. Arafat has made conflicting statements lately about the possible composition of that representation. Most Palestinians are deeply interested in further progress toward peace. However, pending clarification of the PLO position, there was little specific support among them for the international peace conference concept. The potential clearly exists for such support, and it should be nurtured.

Some have questioned, in observing my willingness as a private citizen to meet with representatives of the PLO (though I have not met with Arafat), why I did not as president change U.S. policy and establish direct, formal ties with the PLO. The reason is straightforward, and it remains relevant to this day. It stems from the necessity of preserving the honor of our nation and our credibility as a negotiating partner. In the second disengagement agreement, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, with President Gerald Ford's approval, committed our nation and our government not to negotiate with or recognize the PLO until they recognized UN Resolution 242 as a basis for progress and also Israel's right to exist. Even though the promise was made by my predecessor, I was duty-bound to keep it. In the so-called Amman Accord two years ago, there was a potential agreement between Jordan, the PLO, and the United States whereby we would begin talks with PLO leaders if the PLO would agree to accept UN 242, would agree that Israel has a right to exist and to negotiate with it directly, and would forgo violence during the time of the negotiations. That would fulfill the commitment made by Secretary Kissinger and would eliminate any prohibitions against discussions with PLO leaders. It is better for our country to have some direct talks with the PLO, but, pending these changes in their policy, we are constrained by a commitment that remains binding upon us.

I would also note my strong conviction that there is no alternative to the creation of a Palestinian entity or homeland. In this regard, I favor the approach prescribed by President Reagan in his speech of September 1, 1982, which seemed to be acceptable to Jordan and Egypt, at least. This approach is totally compatible with the Camp David Accords. The additional facet is that there could be a confederation or federation between the West Bank and Gaza on the one hand, and Jordan on the other. That would also be my personal preference. I have stated often my belief in self-determination for the Palestinians and for any other autonomous group. People ought to have a right to decide their own leadership and their own form of government. On the other hand, I would not consider it useful or desirable to create an independent Palestinian state with its own foreign policy, defense forces, etc. This is a moot point, totally unacceptable to Israel and some other neighbors.

The Camp David Accords provided guidelines on this question that remain relevant to this day. Those accords call for full autonomy for the Palestinians and for their participation as equals in negotiations to determine the final status of the West Bank and Gaza. They call for the Palestinians to have a right -- and to exercise that right via referendum -- to approve or disapprove any agreement that has been negotiated concerning the final status of the West Bank and Gaza. Further, the accords call for them to have a strong police force, for the withdrawal of Israeli military and civilian authority, and for the establishment of security outposts jointly manned by Israel and Jordan.

We must acknowledge the difficulties faced by the PLO and by Arafat. Arafat confronts a daunting task in pulling the PLO back together. Largely, this involves careful diplomacy with radicals on his left. It is still reasonable, however, to hope for some movement in the direction of the Amman Accord. If commitments are made by the PLO and Arafat to accept UN 242 and Israel's right to exist, to negotiate in good faith, and to forgo violence, they would overcome U.S. objections. Arafat has intimated a willingness to commit to these positions.

But such commitments would not meet the objections of the Israelis, who now state that they will not negotiate with representatives of the Palestinains unless under the terms of the Camp David Accords. Those accords specified that Palestinians could participate in any or all of three ways: as a Palestinian group from the occupied territories, as members of the Jordanian delegation, or as members of the Egyptian delegation. The understanding I had with the Israeli leaders of the time was that the credentials of these Palestinians would not be examined too closely, meaning we might anticipate some PLO members but no high-profile PLO leaders. Even with no change in Israel's position, with any sort of diplomatic finesse, one could write a statement that would meet Kissinger's commitment to the withdrawal agreement and permit the Palestinians to participate. Arafat could make this easier by designating negotiators whom the Palestinian community could trust. Such would be my hope.

The International Peace Conference

The cumulative factors cited above suggest that the time is ripe to resume the peace process through an international peace conference. Among the Arab leaders I met, and among some Israeli and Palestinian leaders as well, there was a relative consonance of view on the desirability of an international peace conference at this time. They perceive it as having genuine value. These Arab leaders recognize that direct bilateral discussion with Israel would be necessary as a part of the process. Indeed, a fair amount of discussion has already been conducted concerning the modalities of such a conference.

How might such a conference work? There is of course the first question of who would chair such a conference. The preference of most of the key actors would be for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to comprise the plenum. I share this preference. There is no greater international authority. Another option would be for the United States and the Soviet Union to cochair the conference, as originally conceived 14 years ago, though this has a number of important and obvious drawbacks.

Any plenum would have no authority to impose its will on individual nations or groups, but it could provide guarantees that an agreement would be enforced. In certain remote circumstances, this might entail the allocation of troops to a sensitive area. The plenum group could both pledge financial assistance and seek additional financial assets from the Arab countries and other parts of the world. If something like a Marshall Plan were part of an overall settlement on the West Bank and Gaza, major projects could be used as bargaining levers.

The opening plenum meeting would serve as an opportunity for each party to present its best arguments. No such opportunity currently exists, especially for those participants without ready access to the Western media. But it would fill an important need for the peoples of the region to express their legitimate grievances and hopes to a worldwide audience and to sketch out publicly their debating positions. Such sessions might go on for about a week, giving everyone plenty of time to clarify their own positions and to comment on the remarks of others.

After a preplanned recess, one would expect Israel to negotiate directly with its neighbors on issues of common concern. As agreement are reached, the parties would report back to the plenum. When there is a deadlock in the direct negotiations, other avenues might be pursued. The issues could be referred back to the plenum at any time by joint agreement of the two disputants for further discussion. If one party objected to referral back to the plenum, a certain delay might be permitted before joining the issue again. Where there is a firm deadlock, or even from the beginning of talks, constructive use could be made of a mediator -- not a formal arbitrator with the authority to impose a solution on the disputants, but someone trusted by both parties who would present possible compromises leading to a fair solution. The plenum group would be charged with seeing that overarching issues are sorted out, with the active participation of the disputing parties. Such issues could include the following: How should the refugees among the Palestinians receive compensation, a point covered in the Camp David Accords? What is the optimal disposition of water resources? What sort of economic aid might be offered to the region?

Finding mutually acceptable mediators strikes some as an impossible task. I disagree. The world provides many leaders of principle and integrity to whom even the most hostile of enemies can turn when committed to finding a solution to issues that divide them.

As an aside, I am happy to note that my trip afforded me an opportunity to express my thanks to the leaders and people of Algeria, who were so helpful in the negotiations between me and the Ayatollah Khomeini in the last few weeks and days of my administration. The Algerians are a logical possibility to mediate certain aspects of the conflict in the Gulf war between Iran and Iraq.

The Critical Role of the United States

A good opportunity now exists for the United States to move the peace process forward. Two principal arguments have been offered in the United States against an effort to advance this process.

This first argument is that the international conference affords the Soviets a foot in the door that we should avoid at all costs. In response, it is obvious that the Soviet foot is already in the door and that we could expect the Soviets to play a constructive peacemaking role, particularly if there has been some warming of relations between Washington and Moscow on arms control or other outstanding bilateral issues.

The Soviets were formally accorded a role in the Middle East 14 years ago with agreements associated with UN Resolution 338, which called under a later definition for the convening of an international group with the Soviet Union and United States presiding. In fact, this occurred for two or three days. Later, on October 1, 1977, we concluded a joint statement with the Soviets that prescribed the basic common approach of the Soviet Union and the United States on the main issues of the Middle East conflict. Its provisions are still germane. Sadat's visit to Jerusalem sidetracked that process, but did not overturn it. Of course, under any circumstances approved by or acceptable to the Arab side, the Soviet Union would have to be a participant.

In fact, I would argue further that the Soviets should participate. As unwilling outsiders, they could play an immensely obstructive role. Given an opportunity to play the peacemaker, the Soviets are not likely to be seen as spoiling the process. I would anticipate that the Soviet Union might be on its best behavior in such a conference. In an international forum with world attention focused upon them, most of the participants would probably want to present an image of moderation, responsibility, and substantiality. In fact, the opportunities for Soviet manipulation would be minimal -- no one would come to the negotiating table if it seemed likely that the plenum or any of its members could enforce its will on any of the negotiating parties.

The second argument against active U.S. participation is that it is not possible for the Reagan administration to build political support for such a move, particularly in the remaining months of its term. In my view, this states the problem in reverse. A renewed commitment to peace in the Middle East, backed up by diligence, energy, wisdom, and a bit of risk-taking, could only result in highly favorable domestic and international support. The timing for such an initiative is propitious. Such a process would not have to be fully successful in the months remaining to this administration in order for it to generate political support in the United States and abroad.

The Reagan administration could publicly announce that it intends to take up this project and do what it can to convince relevant parties to commit themselves to participate in an international peace conference. It could usefully take responsibility to build consensus for delineating the mechanisms of the process and expressing its support of specifics. President Reagan has already stated his views on this subject clearly and effectively in September 1982, and I do not think it would be productive at this time to indicate particular agreements that we could or could not support. The role the United States should play right now is to orchestrate the procedure leading up to the conference. A strong U.S. commitment to this end could have the positive effect of inducing some reasonable modifications in the demands of any recalcitrant parties.

Two other points about the U.S. role merit attention. First, regional actors will be hard-pressed to understand the restraints of Gramm-Rudman for the aid budget. The cuts in foreign aid likely to emerge from this year's tortured budget process are certain to be met in the Middle East with disappointment if not a significant degree of misapprehension, particularly on the part of the Egyptians and Jordanians who are less conversant than the Israelis with U.S. political realities.

Second, we should not become overinvested in particular titles. If the Jordanians want to negotiate under the Reagan initiative, if the Palestinians want to negotiate under the Fez Statement of September 1982, if Syria wants to negotiate under UN 242, and if the Israelis and Egyptians want to negotiate under Camp David, that all suits me just fine. All of those frameworks are satisfactory for commencing negotiations. I am proud of the Camp David Accords, but do not have any particular affinity for them as the formal label for a continuing process. The basic principles of those accords are now being pursued aggressively, particularly by some Jordanians, who rejected them at the time.


As a private citizen, I am no longer constrained by the limits I had as president. I can meet with whomever I choose, without embarrassment. I enjoy particularly valuable access to almost any leader, not only in politics and the military but also in the fields of science, agriculture, health care, and so forth. This puts me in a unique position to articulate an agenda, nurture continuing possibilities, and help to build consensus. I continue to work on the Middle East peace problem at the Carter Center at Emory University, where we have enjoyed the exceptional opportunity to bring together leaders of different communities to meet and exchange ideas without excessive vituperation. I am in a position to travel widely, and to report on my findings to senior decision makers. At the Center, we shall continue to foster academic study and consultations aimed at undergirding the search for peace.

I do not enjoy the authority to act, but I strongly encourage those in authority to take the next step toward peace. There is adequate consensus in the Middle East to warrant this effort.

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