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The Choice For Israelis

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2003, issue of The Washington Post.

Last week we observed the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords, which spelled out the basic relationships between Israel and its neighbors and led within a few months to the inviolate peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Participants in the recent event included nine of the 11 members of the U.S. negotiating team and key advisers to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

It was intriguing to review the issues we faced then, after four major wars in the previous 25 years, and to assess how current problems have evolved. All of us have retained a deep interest in the peace process and hopes of eventual success.

Part of that hope was derived from the calm and relative friendship that prevailed after the successful negotiations at Camp David, those of the Norwegians between Israelis and Palestinians in 1993, and the Palestinian elections of 1996, in which a parliament was formed and Yasser Arafat chosen as president. These were times, although transient, when moderate leadership and sound judgment prevailed, and citizens lived and worked side by side in peace.

In each case, radical and violent actions subsequently intruded, exemplified by the assassinations of Sadat and of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and by the unconscionable suicide bombings and other violence that continue today.

There is an impressive continuity of unchanging basic issues, expressed most clearly and succinctly in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed unanimously after the 1967 war. It requires, in effect, a withdrawal of Israel from occupied territories, in exchange for ensured peace and recognition from all Arab governments and other organizations.

It has been recognized that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were a violation of international law and the primary incitement to violence among Palestinians. Our most intense arguments at Camp David were about their existence and potential expansion. The parties agreed that all those in Egypt's Sinai region were to be dismantled, and there was a strong dispute about their growth in the West Bank and Gaza, then comprising about 4,000 settlers. During the first Bush administration, Secretary of State James Baker said, "I don't think there is any greater obstacle to peace than settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an advanced pace," and the president threatened to withhold American financial aid in order to discourage settlement expansion.

But during the past two administrations in Washington and with massive financial and political incentives from the Israeli government, the number of new settlers has skyrocketed, with many settlements protected by military forces and connected to others by secure highways. An impenetrable fence is hastily being built, often through Palestinian lands.

We Camp David alumni discussed the "road map for peace," published in April 2003 by the United States, Great Britain, Russia and the United Nations, and agreed that it encompasses almost exactly the same proposals expressed in previous proclamations and peace agreements, including dismantling the settlements. The Israeli cabinet rejected a number of its key provisions, the Palestinians have not been able to find a negotiating partner acceptable to Israel and the United States and have failed to control violence, and the other three sponsors are effectively excluded from any role in the relatively dormant process.

There is an important and fundamental change in the motivation of the United States as mediator. At Camp David we Americans knew that our nation's strategic interests were directly involved in the peace process. Cold War alliances had resulted in a direct nuclear confrontation between the superpowers as Israel and Egypt fought during the 1973 war, with other aligned nations marshaled to take sides. The Holy Land was the tinderbox for World War III, and peace was vital to our own security.

Today, except for the fact that the Palestinian issue has become one of the foremost causes of international terrorism, our strategic interests are much less involved in the Israeli-Palestinian violence. There seems to be no urgency in resolving the relatively localized dispute, with harsh crackdowns from the Israeli military and abhorrent terrorist acts perpetrated by Palestinians who claim to have no hope for freedom and justice.

Confident that our support is unshakable, Israeli leaders eventually began to assert their independence, and real American influence has reached its lowest ebb in 50 years. In the face of certain rebuffs, why would any American president become deeply involved in a balanced mediating role?

No matter what leaders the Palestinians might choose, how fervent American interest might be or how great the hatred and bloodshed might become, there remains one basic choice, and only the Israelis can make it:

Do we want permanent peace with all our neighbors, or do we want to retain our settlements in the occupied territories of the Palestinians?

America's worst betrayal of Israel would be to support the second choice.

Former President Carter is chairman of The Carter Center in Atlanta.

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