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Remarks on Middle East Peace By Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Delivered on Jan. 23, 2006 at the Herzliya Conference, Israel.

As some of you may know, I am in the region again this week to observe the Palestinian election.

We monitored the first Palestinian election almost exactly 10 years ago, and at the request of the president-elect, Yasir Arafat, I made a strong effort to convince the leaders of Hamas to accept the election results. I relayed a message offering them full participation in the process of developing a permanent constitutional framework for the new political entity, but they refused to accept this proposal. Despite this rejection, it was a brief time of peace and hope, and there were no threats of violence.

Although there is now some justified trepidation about the involvement of candidates from Hamas, we are hopeful that, despite severe restrictions on voting in East Jerusalem and movement within the West Bank, the election process will be peaceful and another demonstration of the Palestinians' commitment to democracy.

All of us realize that Hamas is a radical organization that has been guilty of acts of violence and has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. Their candidates have been quite successful in local elections held throughout the occupied territories, and public opinion polls indicate that they may garner as many as 35 percent of the legislative seats. This may or may not lead to their assuming more moderate and peaceful policies. This they must do!

The overall search for regional peace is very challenging. Collectively, beginning when I became president, I have spent as much time with the Saudis, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians as with different groups in Israeli society.

Down through the years, I have seen despair and frustration evolve into hope and progress.

Twenty-seven years ago, when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat joined me at Camp David, Egypt could hardly have been described as a likely partner for peace with Israel. The two armies had been at war four times during the previous quarter century, but the leaders were able to find common ground that served the interests of both nations. I am proud to say that not one element of the 1979 peace agreement has ever been breached.

Today, I am troubled by commentaries that focus on the inevitability of sustained conflict. I would like to speak of the enduring prospects for peace.

  • Until Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's startling Jerusalem visit and the subsequent 1979 peace treaty, Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel was inconceivable. When it came, there was overwhelming Arab condemnation. Sadat was assassinated, but the principle of peace between Israeli and Arab prevailed.
  • At a subsequent conference in Madrid, Secretary of State James Baker orchestrated the first direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
  • In 1993, the Norwegians proved in Oslo that Prime Minister Rabin could negotiate successfully with the Palestinians' leader. On both sides, this was an unprecedented recognition of the other's legitimacy. Rabin was assassinated, but the principle of peace between Israeli and Palestinian prevailed.
  • Two years after Oslo, when Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli leaders made a similar commitment to Egypt's, there was wide Arab acceptance of Hussein's decision.

In every case, depending on the mutuality of agreement and the degree of hope for peace and justice, the level of violence and vituperation dropped precipitously. During these earlier times, when moderate leadership and sound judgment prevailed on both sides, citizens lived and worked side by side in relative peace.

There is little doubt that a comprehensive peace agreement can bring full Arab recognition of Israel and its right to live in peace, with an Arab commitment to restrain further violence initiated by extremist Palestinian groups.

More recently, President George W. Bush has taken another important step when he called for establishing a Palestinian state and endorsed the Quartet's Road Map, and within the last year Palestinians have chosen another leader and Israel has withdrawn from Gaza.

I am convinced that Israelis and Palestinians both want a durable two-state solution. Recent polling from both Hebrew University and Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki indicates that more than 60 percent - almost two-thirds - of Israelis and Palestinians support basic parameters that offer a reasonable alternative for both sides.

These parameters are increasingly well known, as expressed in the Quartet's Road Map and more definitively in the Geneva initiative. Both of them offer the crucial and unavoidable elements of a permanent peace in the Holy Land.

The Geneva initiative is completely compatible with the final vision of the Quartet's Roadmap fashioned by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. What is important is that the initiative overcomes what can be a fatal flaw of the Roadmap: the laborious and easily aborted step-by-step procedure. It includes:

  • Secure borders for Israel and overwhelming recognition by the Arab world;
  • A sovereign, contiguous, viable state for Palestinians recognized by the international community;
  • A harmonious sharing of Jerusalem with arrangements that ensure unfettered access to holy sites for all; and
  • The resolution of claims for displaced Palestinians that focuses on re-settlement in the new Palestinian state or equivalent compensation. The responsibility would not be on Israel, but on the world community.

The proposal calls for more than half of the Israeli settlers to remain permanently in the West Bank and strictly limits the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Many specifics have already been published, but it is obvious that there will be inevitable modifications to both of these proposals if and when official and sincere peace talks lead to an official agreement.

Responses from the general public have been encouraging. When the institute headed by James Baker presented these basic premises in an opinion poll, 53.3 percent of Israelis and 55.6 percent of Palestinians approved, despite a lack of public support from top political leaders.

History has proven that Israelis and Palestinians, even when they are ready to negotiate directly, will need a credible third party to help guide them through the process. Here, the role of the United States, and in particular the full support of the President of the United States, must not be underestimated. America remains the only power acceptable to both sides and with the capability of leading the international community in planning for and delivering an effective implementation process once an agreement is reached.

Unfortunately, stalemate, distrust, and violence persist, threatening to negate or reverse many of the earlier proud achievements. Some misguided Palestinians honor suicide bombers as martyrs, to be rewarded in heaven, and consider the killing of Israeli civilians as victories. During the last few years, Israel has set obviously impossible prerequisites for direct talks with elected Palestinian leaders. Even with complete freedom within their own territory and unlimited armament and training, no government could guarantee the total disarmament of all dissident factions in the territory.

However, violence - acts of terrorism - must be controlled. This will require a joint effort by Israelis and Palestinians.

Some Israelis believe their West Bank settlements to be sacrosanct and try to justify the sustained subjugation of increasingly hopeless Palestinians.

There is little doubt that the lack of a persistent effort to resolve the Palestinian issue is a primary source of anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East and a major incentive for terrorist activity.

The United States and almost all other nations recognize that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are 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. During the administration of George Bush, Sr., 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 Israeli settlement expansion.

More recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated what is still the current American position concerning Middle East peace:

"The Palestinian leadership must end violence, stop incitement, and prepare their people for the hard compromises ahead. All in the Arab world must make unmistakably clear, through their own actions, their acceptance of Israel and their commitment to a negotiated settlement. Israel must be willing to end its occupation, consistent with the principles embodied in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and accept a viable Palestinian State in which Palestinians can determine their own future on their own land and live in dignity and security."

A prerequisite for peacemaking is for antagonists to realize that good faith negotiations are preferable to sustained violence. When this time comes again, I believe inevitably, it is good to remember that the basic parameters already exist.

The primary question now is whether the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza represents a real turning point or just one more failed milestone on an impossible road to peace.

My own opinion is that the international community, a strong majority of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens, and the leaders of almost all Arab nations will support these basic premises.

What, then, are the impediments to further progress? The most obvious ones are continuing threats of violence from radical Palestinians, refusal to acknowledge Israelis' right to live in peace, the determination of some Israeli settlers to continue their occupation of Palestinian territory, and excessive deference by other nations to preeminence of the United States in the peace process. Another factor is the reluctance of American political leaders to confront the powerful Israeli lobbying forces, even though I know from experience that American Jewish leaders will support reasonable concessions by Israel in exchange for clear progress toward peace.

One potentially negative result of the Gaza withdrawal has been the demonstrated ability of Israeli leaders to make a unilateral decision, without involving either the United States or the Palestinians.

With increasing control of East Jerusalem, relative security behind the intrusive wall built in the West Bank, and with thousands of settlers protected by a strong occupying force, there is a temptation for many Israelis simply to withdraw from any further efforts to seek a just peace agreement based on the Quartet's Road Map or any other equivalent proposals. The clear short-term benefits may very well subvert any further genuine efforts for a comprehensive and permanent peace.

This would leave the Palestinians with a prospective future impossible for them or any substantial portion of the international community to accept. Gaza, as presently defined and circumscribed, is a nonviable economic and political entity, and there is no possibility of an acceptable Palestinian state in what now remains of their territory in the West Bank East of the dividing wall. As Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a few others pointed out years ago, efforts by Israel to perpetuate this situation will be increasingly difficult as the relative number of Palestinians increases inexorably both within Israel and in the occupied territories.

The only rational response to these challenges is to revitalize the peace process, with strong influence exerted from America.

As I said in a 1979 speech to the Israeli Knesset, "The people support a settlement. Political leaders are the obstacles to peace."

The recent dramatic shuffling of political parties in Israel might presage movements toward permanent peace for Israelis, with freedom and justice for Palestinians. I join all of you in praying for this achievement.

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