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Jimmy Carter on Middle East Peace: Council on Foreign Relations Speech Calls for Renewed Commitment to Justice for Palestinians, Israelis

Jimmy Carter

The Major Obstacles to Peace in the Holy Land

We all share a dream of peace in the Middle East. This afternoon I will review what has brought us to the present situation, the obstacles before us, and some things that must be done to bring peace and justice to the region.

My comments will focus on some aspects that are not usually discussed freely. I know how politically sensitive some of the issues are, but I'll be as accurate and frank as possible. I don't intend to run again for public office and can always rely on Secret Service protection!

The three most basic premises are quite clear:

  1. Israel's right to exist - and to live in peace - must be recognized and accepted by Palestinians and all other neighbors;
  2. The killing of innocent people by suicide bombs or other acts of violence cannot be condoned; and
  3. Palestinians must live in peace and dignity, and permanent Israeli settlements on their land are a major obstacle to this goal.

Let me first review the official position of the United States. From Dwight Eisenhower through the road map of George W. Bush, our policy has been that Israel's borders coincide with those of 1949. The U.S. has consistently stated, since 1967, that U.N. Resolution 242 is binding on Israel as a foreign power that is occupying Palestine territory. To quote its key commitments:

"The inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every state in the area can live in security, and the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict; and the termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

These exact words were accepted and reemphasized by Israel at Camp David in 1978 and Oslo in 1993, but permanent settlements have been considered by some as "creating facts on the ground," clearly designed to preclude withdrawal from the occupied territories.

There were just a few hundred settlers in the West Bank and Gaza when I became president, and all my predecessors had categorized each settlement as both illegal and an obstacle to peace.

After I left office, the Likud government expanded its settlement activity, precipitating a strong statement by President Reagan in September 1982. I quote the key passages:

"The Camp David agreement remains the foundation of our policy...The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transition period. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated. We will not support annexation or permanent control by Israel...U.N. Resolution 242 remains wholly valid as the foundation stone of America's Middle East peace effort...It is the United States' position that, in return for peace, the withdrawal provision of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza."

After a major breakthrough in the peace process occurred under President George H.W. Bush and Secretary James Baker at Madrid, the president reemphasized U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements and even threatened to withhold American financial aid as a deterrent. Jim Baker announced, "I don't think there is any greater obstacle to peace than settlement activity..…"

The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 brought a tragic halt to the Oslo peace process, and Israel rejected its major premises after Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon declared it to be "national suicide."

Although President Clinton made strong efforts to promote peace, most notably at Camp David in 2000, a massive increase of settlers occurred during his administration, mostly while Ehud Barak was prime minister. By 2001, there were 225,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. The best offer to the Palestinians - by Clinton, not Barak - was to withdraw 20 percent of them, leaving 180,000 in 209 settlements, covering about 5 percent of the occupied land.

The 5 percent figure is misleading. It describes only the actual footprints of the settlements. In addition, there are other large areas that have been taken or earmarked for future expansion, roadways that join the settlements with each other and to Jerusalem, and "life arteries" that provide water, sewage, electricity, and communications. These range in width from 500 to 4,000 meters, and Palestinians cannot use or even cross many of these connecting links. This honeycomb of settlements and their interconnecting arteries divides the entire West Bank into multiple fragments, often uninhabitable or even unreachable. There are also about 100 military checkpoints completely surrounding Palestine and along the roads going into or between Palestinian communities.

In 2002, President George W. Bush endorsed an Arab proposal to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal to its own borders. The following year, he and other members of the international quartet reemphasized U.N. 242 as a basis for a permanent agreement and called for a sovereign Palestinian state side by side with Israel.

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."

The PLO accepted the road map. Israel also announced its acceptance, but with 14 caveats and prerequisites, some of which preclude final peace talks:

  1. The dismantling of Hamas, collection of all illegal weapons, and their destruction;
  2. Cessation of incitement against Israel, but the road map cannot state that Israel must cease violence and incitement against the Palestinians;
  3. Israeli control over Palestine, including the entry and exit of all persons and cargo, plus its air space and electromagnetic spectrum;
  4. The waiver of any right of return of refugees to Israel;
  5. No discussion of Israeli settlement in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza or the status of the Palestinian Authority and its institutions in Jerusalem;
  6. No reference to the key provisions of U.N. Resolution 242.

A major goal of my life, while in political office and since I was involuntarily retired from the White House, has been to ensure a lasting peace for Israelis. Even before I was president I established personal relationships with Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Abba Eban, and other Israeli leaders, and learned all I could about Israel and its political and military challenges. In my first year as president, I called publicly for a Palestinian homeland and met with Rabin, Begin, Sadat, Assad, Hussein, and the leaders of Lebanon.

Sadat was a special ally, and he and I agreed to make a major effort for peace. He first suggested an international conference in Cairo, but I disagreed so he decided to go to Jerusalem. His speech to the Knesset spelled out the maximum Arab position, but led to the Camp David negotiations in 1978.

There, Sadat only had two demands: a withdrawal by Israel from Egyptian territory and basic rights for the Palestinians. Begin agreed to both, including full autonomy for Palestine, a reaffirmation of U.N. Resolution 242, and the withdrawal of Israeli military and political forces from the occupied territories. This agreement was ratified overwhelmingly by the Israeli Knesset. Begin also promised to freeze settlement activity until permanent peace talks were concluded, but he subsequently stated that his commitment would last only three months.

We then concluded a comprehensive treaty between Israel and Egypt, which has never been violated by either side. This removed any major military threat to Israel. Although Sadat's commitment was condemned by many Arab nations, and he was assassinated by militants, Jordan's later accommodation with Rabin was accepted without significant Arab dissent.

The Carter Center has maintained close relationships in the Middle East for the past quarter century. Seeing little interest in peace talks during the eight years after I left the White House, I made several extensive visits to Saudi Arabia, the nations surrounding Israel, and with Palestinians in those countries and in the occupied territories. I continued personal ties with Begin and his Likud successors and with the Labor Party, and always gave follow-up briefings to secretary of State George Schultz and the national security advisor.

More recently, with Israel's approval, we have monitored all three Palestinian elections. Supervised by a blue-ribbon commission of college presidents and distinguished jurists, they have all been honest, fair, and peaceful, with the results accepted by winners and losers.

Let me outline the key players:

  1. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen): He will remain in office as president for three more years and has great powers under Palestinian law. He is also the undisputed leader of the PLO, the only Palestinian entity recognized by Israel. He has publicly endorsed the road map, without equivocation, and has been eager to negotiate with Israel since first becoming prime minister three years ago. Postelection polls show that nearly 70 percent still support Abbas as president, and more than 80 percent still want a negotiated peace agreement with Israel.

    Abbas told me after the election that, because of Israeli restraints, the Palestinian Authority was bankrupt, and the poverty level among Palestinian families had more than doubled in the past five years. There were no funds to meet their February or subsequent payrolls for teachers, nurses, social workers, and police, or to pay Israeli suppliers for electricity and water. He added that only 10 percent of their security force had been permitted to have side arms or adequate communication equipment.
  2. Hamas: Their members have gained a strong majority in the national assembly and this month will become prime minister and form a cabinet. Their party whip and spokesman, Dr. Mahmoud Ramahi, has told me that they want a peaceful unity government, Abu Mazen to handle all foreign affairs, and can extend their 18-month ceasefire (Hudna) for "two, 10, or 50 years" - if Israel will reciprocate. Future actions will, of course, reveal their true commitments. My guess is that for now they want to consolidate their political gains, maintain domestic order and stability, and refrain from any contact with Israel. It will be a tragedy - especially for the Palestinians - if they promote or condone terrorism.
  3. Israel: It has announced a policy of isolating and destabilizing the new government (perhaps joined by the United States). None of the elected parliament members will be given travel permits, all workers from Gaza are now prevented from entering Israel, and every effort is being made to block funds to Palestine. There has been a reconfirmation from the foreign minister that President Abbas is "irrelevant."
  4. The quartet: They are in a quandary and somewhat divided as they seek a way to punish Hamas while avoiding further deprivation of the Palestinians.

Their special envoy, Jim Wolfensohn, stated this week that Israel and the United States were violating quartet policy and could cause despair and tension leading to violence and chaos - particularly just before the Israeli election. The Palestinian Authority faces a $260 million budget deficit before the Hamas government is formed, mainly because of Israel's withholding of up to $130 million in Palestinian tax and customs revenue and Washington's requesting the return of $50 million in direct aid.

Since the Hamas victory is the result of an election that the United States encouraged, even forced, this punishment undermines the credibility of our commitment to democracy.

Wolfensohn proposed a donor meeting in mid-March to seek ways of financing the Palestinian government without violating antiterrorism laws that prohibit funds from being sent directly to Hamas.

In the short run, the best approach is to follow Wolfensohn's advice, give the dust a chance to settle in Palestine, and await the outcome of Israel's election later this month, at about the same time the new Palestinian government will be formed.

What, then, are the impediments to further progress? As before: continuing threats of violence from radical Palestinians, refusal to acknowledge Israel's right to live in peace, the determination of Israeli settlers to occupy Palestinian territory, and during the last few years, Israel's rejection of any substantive talks with Palestinian leaders.

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

Gaza, as presently defined and circumscribed, is a nonviable economic and political entity, and there is no possibility of a viable and acceptable Palestinian state in what now remains of their territory.

The latest development is a huge concrete dividing wall being erected in populated areas and a high fence in more rural areas - built entirely within the West Bank and often intruding deep into Palestinian territory to encompass more land and settlements. It is planned to surround Palestine completely, and already about two dozen Palestinian communities are on the Israeli side.

With tension rising, the occupying forces have become increasingly oppressive in order to sustain control over the Palestinians, who are deprived of basic human rights militarily, politically, and economically. This is obvious to anyone who visits Palestine.

From September 2000 until 10 days ago, 3,982 Palestinians and 1,084 Israelis have been killed in the conflict, and this includes many children: 708 Palestinians and 123 Israelis.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a few others pointed out years ago that efforts by Israel to control this situation will be increasingly difficult as the relative number of Palestinians increases demographically both within Israel and in what is left of Palestine.

Most Israelis know this to be true and have seen this relationship as a distortion of their ancient moral and religious values. Over the years, consistent opinion polls have shown that about 60 percent of them favor withdrawing from the West Bank in exchange for permanent peace.

Despite these immediate challenges, we must not assume that the future is hopeless.

Down through the years, I have seen despair and frustration evolve into hope and progress. Twenty-seven years ago, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat could hardly have been expected to find peace. Their nations had been at war four times during the previous quarter century, and every Arab country was sworn to destroy the nation of Israel.

Later, because of the good offices of Norwegians, the terrorist policy of the PLO was transformed to one of peaceful accommodation with Israel. Soon thereafter, King Hussein made a similar commitment to Sadat's, and there was wide Arab acceptance of his decision.

During these earlier times, when moderate leadership and sound judgment prevailed on both sides, citizens in the Holy Land have lived and worked side by side in relative harmony. There is little doubt that accommodation with Palestinians 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.

History has proven the need for a strong mediation role by the U.S., and 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.

There is almost complete deference by other nations to the United States as a strong and objective mediator. This balanced role is constrained by powerful lobbying forces, but I know from experience that the American Jewish community will support reasonable concessions by Israel in exchange for clear progress toward peace.

An overwhelming number of both Israelis and Palestinians want a durable two-state solution, based on well-known criteria that have been spelled out in the quartet's road map and with complete compatibility in the Geneva Initiative. A privately negotiated plan, it overcomes what can be a fatal flaw of the road map: the easily delayed or aborted step-by-step procedure.

The Geneva Accord prescribes:

  1. Secure borders for Israel and overwhelming recognition by the Arab world;
  2. A sovereign, contiguous, viable state for Palestinians recognized by the international community;
  3. A harmonious sharing of Jerusalem with arrangements that ensure unfettered access to holy sites for all;
  4. The Resolution of claims for displaced Palestinians that focuses on resettlement in the new Palestinian state or equivalent compensation - this responsibility would not be on Israel, but on the world community; and
  5. More than half of the Israeli settlers to remain permanently in the West Bank.

It is obvious that there will be inevitable modifications if and when official and sincere peace talks are held, but polling by the James Baker Institute revealed that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians approve these principles, despite strong opposition from some top political leaders.

Let me close by saying this: It is at least possible that the present dramatic shuffling of political parties in Israel and Palestine may enhance the now-stalemated prospect for permanent peace for Israelis with freedom and justice for Palestinians. I join all of you in praying for this achievement.

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