Ganging Up on Jimmy Carter
January 12, 2007
Jimmy is really taking it in the chin for daring to criticize Israel.
Ever since the publication of his “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” Carter has been subjected to repeated punches for stating some truths. Whether or not this affects Carter, it will certainly stifle debate about Middle East policy in this country.
My concern is not so much about him. In fact, his book is doing quite well, aided by the controversy and several high-profile media appearances that Carter has done (Charlie Rose, Larry King, and Terry Gross among them). My concern is what the reception will do to the chances of a candid discussion about U.S. Middle East policy.
In the most recent blow that Carter has suffered, fourteen members of the Carter Center’s advisory board resigned January 11 to protest the book and Carter’s comment about the power of the Israeli lobby in the United States.
“It seems you have turned to a world of advocacy, even malicious advocacy,” the joint letter says. “We can no longer endorse your strident and uncompromising position. This is not the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter we came to respect and support.”
This hasn’t been the first resignation from the Carter Center over the issue. Last month, Kenneth Stein, a former executive director, also quit his post as a fellow.
Attacks from outside the Carter camp have been even harsher. The Anti-Defamation League has placed harshly critical ads of the book in major newspapers, and ADL Director Abraham Foxman has engaged in the calumny of calling Carter anti-Semitic.
And in a testament to the spinelessness of the Democratic Party leadership on the subject, several prominent party lawmakers have distanced themselves from the book. Among these are such liberals as Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, and John Conyers.
"While I have tremendous respect for former President Carter, I fundamentally disagree and do not support his analysis of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Dean opines. "On this issue President Carter speaks for himself, the opinions in his book are his own, they are not the views or position of the Democratic Party. I and other Democrats will continue to stand with Israel in its battle against terrorism and for a lasting peace with its neighbors."
Not to be outdone, Pelosi states: “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously. With all due respect to former President Carter, he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel.”
Unintentionally, Pelosi and Dean uphold one of Carter’s main talking points, which is that rational discussion of Israel and U.S. support of Israeli policy is all-but-impossible in the mainstream in the United States. “I can’t imagine a Presidential candidate saying, ‘I’m going to take a balanced position toward the Israelis and the Palestinians,’ and getting elected,” Carter told The New Yorker. “It’s inconceivable. AIPAC is smart enough to penetrate any sort of circumlocutions.”
Now, Carter’s book is not above reproach. Carter engages in the name-dropping that is the hallmark of books written by famous personalities trying to impress the reader with how many other household names the writer knows. It also has the traditional Carter failing of having too gentle a touch in his assessment of extremely flawed personalities as Yasser Arafat and Hafez Assad. (This is, after all, a man whose affection for strongmen sometimes seems to extend to their wives, as when he previously lavished praise on the spouse of Haitian military thug Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, whom he thought of as “impressive, powerful and forceful” and “slim and very attractive.”)
Curiously, Carter uses the term “apartheid” almost not at all within the book, citing an unnamed Israeli in support on the rare occasion when he does compare Israel’s policies with South Africa’s. It is his use of the word in the title that has raised hackles the most. In my opinion, the analogy is imprecise but not completely invalid as a way to describe Israel’s system of control in the Occupied Territories. For example, the Israeli government has divided up Palestinian land in such a way that it resembles the Bantustans under apartheid, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out.
The book’s core contains two solid points about the Middle East, expressed in Carter’s mild tone: First, Israel’s policies are a major obstacle to lasting peace in the Middle East. And, second, unquestioning support by the United States for those policies greatly contributes to U.S. unpopularity in the region.
The moment anyone raises these points, there is a storm of reaction. Last year, Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer got this treatment when they published an academic paper critical of the Israeli lobby and its effect on U.S. policy. (See my April 6, 2006, column on the issue.)
Now Carter gets more of the same. My concern is not so much about him. In fact, his book is doing quite well, aided by the controversy and several high-profile media appearances that Carter has done (Charlie Rose, Larry King, and Terry Gross among them). My concern is what the reception will do to the chances of a candid discussion about U.S. Middle East policy. If this is the welcome that awaits an ex-President and Nobel Peace Prize-winner, lesser mortals will give up before even starting.