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Peace With Justice in the Middle East

Remarks by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the Mansfield College, Oxford, "Hands Lecture."

I am honored to deliver brief remarks this evening entitled "Peace with Justice in the Middle East," and, with some trepidation, prepared to answer your questions about a rapidly changing tragedy.

This is not a simple subject. Pope John Paul II once declared that two solutions were possible to the Palestine-Israel conflict — the realistic and the miraculous. The realistic would involve a divine intervention, from heaven; the miraculous would be a voluntary agreement between the two parties!

First, some remarks about my recent book, "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid," which, by the way, is still on sale.

Although I am fairly familiar with political circumstances in America, I was surprised at how controversial it has been. I have participated in more than 120 media interviews — all challenging and exciting, but only a few of them enjoyable.

Now, prior to answering your questions, let me explain my involvement in the Middle East and my credentials for bringing you this message.

It may be difficult for students and even professors to realize what I faced as a new president concerning the nation of Israel. There was an oil embargo by Arab OPEC nations, with a secondary boycott of any American corporation doing business with Israel. There had been four major wars in 25 years led by Egypt, the only Arab country (then with Soviet military support) that had the status of a formidable challenger.

There was a lack of concerted efforts to bring peace to Israel, and there were no demands on me as a successful candidate to initiate such negotiations. There had never been any national site in America as a reminder of the despicable facts of the Nazi holocaust. Also, the Soviet Union permitted only a handful of Jews to leave Russia each year.

As president, I began to communicate with human rights heroes, including Andrei Sakarov and Natan Sharansky, to speak publicly on their behalf, and to confront Soviet leaders about them. This increased tensions between me and Soviet President Brezhnev, but within two years annual Jewish emigrations from Russia to the United States increased to more than 50,000. When Sharansky was released, he said that America's human rights policy had saved his life.

We passed legislation that prohibited secondary boycotts against Israel, with severe penalties against any U.S. corporation that violated the new law.

In 1978, on Israel's 30th birthday, with P.M. Menachim Begin and several hundred rabbis present on the south lawn of the White House, I announced a blue-ribbon commission that established a major holocaust museum in Washington.

I realized that to achieve peace in the Middle East I would have to be seen as an honest broker by both sides. In that belief I followed in the footsteps of my six predecessors, three Democrats and three Republicans.

As one of my highest priorities, I negotiated the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978, in which, in exchange for peace, Israel agreed to grant full autonomy to the Palestinians and to withdraw Israeli military and political forces from lands of the Palestinians and Egypt. This agreement was ratified by an 85% majority in the Israeli Knesset. Six months later, we concluded a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has been violated for 28 years. This removed from Israel its major Arab military threat.

I did all I could, and left office believing that Israel would soon realize the dream of peace with its other neighbors – a small nation that then exemplified the finest ideals that I have taught on Sundays since I was 18 years old – based on the Hebrew scriptures where "Justice" is mentioned 28 times and "righteousness" 196 times.

After leaving the White House and forming the Carter Center, my wife and I visited throughout Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza at every opportunity, to encourage peaceful relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

More recently, I have led the Carter Center in monitoring the Palestinian elections of 1996, 2005, and 2006, which required a thorough and intimate involvement with candidates, public officials, and citizens throughout the Holy Land. The government of Israel had to approve our involvement, and I have always consulted closely with Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert, who provided both cooperation and some restraints, especially in East Jerusalem.

Few people have had a greater opportunity than I have to understand the complex interrelationships from personal observations.

I am also familiar with the harsh rhetoric and extreme acts of violence in the Middle East that have been perpetrated against innocent civilians, and I understand the fear among many Israelis that threats still exist against their safety and even their existence as a nation. We must all join in strong condemnation of any acts of violence against innocent people, which are not justified at any time or for any goal.

In summary, I have spent a great deal of my adult life trying to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors, based on justice and righteousness for the Palestinians.

I wrote this book to describe the plight of the Palestinians and because we desperately needed a debate in America about where we are and where we ought to be going and how to rejuvenate the now non-existent peace process in the Middle East.

Let me refer to my use of the word "apartheid" in the title of the book. The text makes it clear that it is about conditions and events in the Palestinian territories and not in Israel. Apartheid is when two peoples occupy the same land, forced segregation is imposed, and one dominates and persecutes the other. The driving force for the terrible oppression of the Palestinians comes from a minority of Israelis and their desire to confiscate and colonize Palestinian land.

I might add that there is wide use of the word "apartheid" in Israel among prominent leaders, including a former attorney general (Ben Ya'ir), scholars and legislators (Shulamit Aloni), editors of major newspapers (Ha'aretz), human rights organizations (B'Tselem), and litigants before the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. They have used and explained the word in harsher terms than I, pointing out that this cruel treatment of Palestinians is contrary to the tenets of the Jewish faith and the basic principles of the Nation of Israel. Both Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu have visited the territories and used the same description.

It is good for us to remember that the West Bank comprises only 22% of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with 77% in Israel and 1% in Gaza. Palestinians have now been forcefully removed in their own small area from choice hilltops, vital water resources, and productive land and replaced by heavily subsidized Israeli settlers.

Connecting roads like a spider web, and often for the exclusive use of Israelis, divide what is left of the West Bank into dozens of isolated cantonments. More than 200 settlements, about 500 checkpoints, and a huge dividing wall and fence, sometimes deep inside the West Bank, make the lives of Palestinians almost intolerable. This harms Israel as well by angering the Arab world and making peaceful relationships impossible.

It would be an intriguing experience for a group of professors and students from this university to visit the occupied territories – not just Israel – for a few days, meet with leaders and private citizens, and determine whether I have exaggerated or incorrectly described the plight of the Palestinians.

Within my own country, there is rarely any debate or balanced discussion about the Middle East. Our nation's strong support for Israel comes mostly from among Christians like me who have been taught since childhood to honor and protect God's chosen people from among whom came our own savior, Jesus Christ.

An additional factor, especially in the political arena, is the dominant influence of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – a powerful lobbying group that is exercising its legitimate goal of defending the policies of Israel's most conservative governments and arousing maximum support in our country. Under AIPAC pressure, there are few significant countervailing voices in the public arena, and any balanced debate is still practically nonexistent in the U.S. Congress or among presidential candidates.

It is inconceivable that any ambitious politician would call for Israel to withdraw to its internationally recognized boundaries – or support a balanced negotiating position between Israel and its neighbors – or even express concern about the plight of the Palestinians.

There is no doubt that the withdrawal of Israeli occupying forces from Arab territories would dramatically reduce any threats to Israel. An unavoidable necessary step must be the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, now absent for almost seven years.

President Mahmoud Abbas is the official spokesman for the Palestinians, as head of both the Palestinian National Authority and the PLO, and has repeatedly called for peace talks. Hamas leaders have endorsed this proposal. (It is interesting to note that Israel, the U.S., and the U.N. officially recognize only the PLO, in which Hamas does not participate.

The PLO, of course, also recognizes Israel.

With the exception of one bold move by Norway in 1993, history has shown that progress is possible only if the United States assumes its historic role of honest broker.

To perform that essential task, America must not be seen as "in the pocket" of either side, but must enjoy a degree of trust and respect from both. We must always make clear our commitment to the security of Israel, but we cannot be peacemakers if American government leaders or those in Europe are callous about the suffering of the Palestinian people and the desire of most Israeli citizens: peace and security within recognized borders.

After six years of inaction, the White House announced early this year that peace in the Holy Land would be a high priority for the administration during their remaining time in office, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for early Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. peace talks. As a foundation for peace, she recommended the just-repeated offer of all 22 Arab nations: full recognition of Israel based on a return to its internationally recognized borders.

This offer is compatible with official U.S. policy, key U.N. resolutions supported by the United States and Israel, previous agreements approved by Israeli governments in 1978 and 1993, and the "road map" for peace developed by the international quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations).

The bottom line is this: Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdraw from its neighbors' land and permit the Palestinians to exercise their basic human and political rights. As indicated in the privately negotiated "Geneva Accords" of 2003, this border or "green line," can be modified with mutually agreed land swaps to let a large number of the Israeli settlers retain their subsidized homes in Palestine.

The premise of getting peace in exchange for Palestinian territory adequate for a viable and contiguous state has been acceptable for several decades to a substantial majority of Israelis but not to a minority of the more conservative leaders who have intruded into Palestine.

The current policies are leading toward an immoral outcome that is undermining Israel's standing in the world and is not bringing security.

The growth of Islamic extremism and the unprecedented hostility toward America in the Islamic world is directly related to the lack of justice and continuing bloodshed in the Holy Land. To think otherwise is foolish and dangerous.

These same premises – of accepting Israel within its own boundaries, recognition of past agreements, and the rejection of violence – will have to be accepted by Hamas and any government that represents the Palestinians.

Let me assess for a few minutes what has happened in Palestine, including developments during the last few days while I have been in Nepal: Prior to January 2006, Hamas had refrained from seeking seats in the Palestine National Authority, but had been quite successful in campaigns for local government positions. In communities controlled by them there had been a remarkable reduction of violence and corruption.

When they did enter the national arena, they won 42 percent of the popular vote and a clear majority of seats in the Parliament in an honest and peaceful election. Despite my strong urging, Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, then rejected the Hamas offer to form a unity government.

Israel and the United States decided to punish all the Palestinians for making this political choice, cut off humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered and imprisoned people, and withheld about $60 million/month of revenues belonging to the Palestinians. Almost all European nations acquiesced in this persecution and abuse.

Later, a fragile unity government was negotiated at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, but a struggle continued between Fatah and Hamas security forces in Gaza, with the United States providing military weapons and support to Fatah. Fervent Hamas fighters prevailed in bloody battles. There is now a likely prospect of humanitarian assistance being provided to citizens of the West Bank, while the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer in isolation. The Palestinian people will not likely accept this separation imposed by Israel and the United States, and this will be a tragic mistake that will promote more violence.

Hamas has offered a complete cease-fire in both Gaza and the West Bank, which may be accepted by Israel.

What I have covered in these few minutes is a brief and accurate summary of the current situation. Despite the existing crisis, there is still hope for long-term peace based on the Arab proposal. In fact, a recent poll by the Harry S. Truman Institute in Jerusalem's Hebrew University found 81 percent approval among citizens in the occupied territories and 63 percent approval among Israelis. An early exchange of the 3 Israeli soldiers for some of the 9,800 Palestinian prisoners will expedite the peace process.

There is an avenue that can lead to what all of us want: a secure Israel living within legal borders in peace with its neighbors, while exemplifying the principles of ancient sacred texts and the founding fathers of Israel: justice and righteousness for the Palestinians.

It is crucial that the international community take advantage of these opportunities.

Now I'll take your questions.

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