Monday, January 22, 2007

Carter does not deserve the attacks

Former President Jimmy Carter's recent book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," is very helpful in alerting Israel, U.S. policy makers and the whole world that Palestine should have a viable state if Israel is to have a lasting peace.

The book documents the human rights violations of the Israeli occupation and the growing annexation that would diminish the chances of peace in the future. The book also bravely laments the unconditional support of the U.S. for Israel's hegemony in Palestine.
Among Arabs and Palestinians Carter is now a hero, but among Israelis and some Americans Carter has turned into a villain. Why did Carter fail to deliver his message about peace to most Israelis and their allies in the West? The answer may lie in the technical delivery of Carter's message rather than in its content.

It is ironic how a true friend of Israel, an expert on the Middle East, a peace maker, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a prophetic Christian would receive so much hostility from the American Jewish community about his latest best seller.
The book was perceived as a rebuke of Israeli policy. Carter's narrative convincingly shows that if conditions do not change for the better in the future Israel will face an embarrassing apartheid situation, in which a Jewish minority subjugates a Palestinian majority just as a White minority ruled over the Black majority in South Africa during a previous notorious era.
Carter's forceful message is needed. It will stimulate discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict for years to come. As an advocacy tool the book is a great success. But for attitude change the book has limited impact. Every book has limitations.

This book may have missed an ingredient that would have made it reach the hard-to-reach. The work glossed over the Arab politics of Palestine. It would have helped Carter's opinion change strategy to discuss the Arab role in mishandling the Palestinian cause.
It is important to expose the shoddy human rights records of Arab states. Israelis need the therapeutic feeling that they are not the only iron-fisted state in the region. There may be no apartheid in the twenty two Arab countries, but they have autocracies. Moreover, Arabs have failed to defend Palestinians in successive wars. For example, commenting with phenomenal sensitivity on Saudi Arabia's regime Carter opines that " They balanced their absolute authority with an impressive closeness to their subjects."(p.101).

Carter's silence on Arab autocracy in this book angers the excessively proud Israelis who are obsessive about their "unique democracy," albeit a democracy restricted to the Jewish community. Carter appears in this book to Israelis and many Americans (especially those uninformed about the Middle East) as an advocate of Arabs and insensitive to the Jewish community. His avoidance of Arab autocracy is viewed by his critics as a biased omission of their glaring domestic injustice.

To be fair to Carter, Arab mistreatment of other Arabs is a separate issue. But it is as urgent and as cruel as the issue of Israeli colonial treatment of Palestinians. But Arab autocracy, and even tyranny in cases like Saddam's Iraq, is more related to a delayed Arab awakening, an awakening that will take generations to self-correct from within. Arabs will reform their governance at their own pace and in their own culturally sensitive ways. Carter could have discussed Arab autocracy (in a separate chapter) to make two relevant points that tend to recur in Arab/Israeli debate. First Arabs should not use the occupation of Palestine as an excuse for their neglect of chronic domestic issues. Second, Israelis should likewise not use Arab hostility to Israel as an excuse for not solving the Palestine problem.

Carter should have dealt more seriously with the psychology of fear in apartheid. Israel's apartheid is a short sighted strategy of escape from living with Arabs. Israel seems to be too hesitant to make a peace deal with Arabs in a climate of excessive fear of the future. Carter could have addressed the indirect connection between the region's instability and Israeli reluctance to exchange land for peace. He could have pointed out that it was Israel's choice to build its state within a region that is emerging from colonialism, burdened with new forms of Western influence and struggling to apply the rule of law in a tribal and sectarian culture.

Was Carter as frank about Palestinians as he was about Israelis? Palestinians have been fratricidal and unruly. They have used force unwisely and missed some openings for peace making. They have tarnished their cause partially by resorting to suicidal killing of innocent Israelis. Out of compassion to the underdog Carter is too gentle on misguided Palestinian politics. However, on some occasions the former president has been very frank about Palestinians. In a pastoral style he states that: "Some Palestinians react by honoring suicide bombers as martyrs..". He adds "the cycle of distrust and violence is sustained…" ( p. 206). The Nobel laureate chose to limit his criticism of Palestinians. Perhaps he believes that the Western world has already over-chastised Palestinians for political failure that is partially beyond their control.

Some of Carter's critics may wish to see him remain as an emeritus peace maker. And in peace making opinion change is important. But even in advocacy the art of attitude change of the audience is crucial. Has Carter missed an opportunity to reach the American public at large? Has Carter reached the minds but not the hearts of all stake holders in the region's conflict?
In his latest book Carter is provocative about Israel and its many U.S. friends; and too many of Israel's friends are expectedly on the defensive. Unfortunately, many critics seem to have ignored the fact that Carter was the most active U.S. president in peace making. He was the agent who successfully and miraculously enabled negotiation between Israel and Egypt, using the principle of land for peace. Carter was the engineer of the first moral bridge between Arabs and Jews. What Carter has done in the history of peace making between Arabs and Jews is foundational, inspirational and eternal.

In the long run Carter's book will stand as a breakthrough contribution to peace. Carter may have lost his position as a broker of peace, but he remains a prophet of justice.

11 Comments:

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