Today's date:
Spring 2009

"Yes We Can" in the Middle East

Former United States President Jimmy Carter discusses the prospects of a two-state solution for Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the US foreign policy toward Iran, in an interview conducted by Reza Aslan, author of No god but God and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror.

NPQ | As you lay out in your new book, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work, the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians already accept the parameters of a two-state solution. Why then does the two-state solution still seem so far from becoming a reality?

Jimmy Carter | So far it's been because the Israelis have not been willing to take the crucial step, and that is to withdraw from the Palestinian territory, the West Bank. And this is a crucial point and Israel has not only kept increasing (the settlements) in number but also has built highways among all the settlements from which the Palestinians are now excluded.

And they started building a wall in the Palestinian area of the West Bank, and apparently the inexorable moves have forgone the possibility of the two-state solution. If (the Israelis) accept this two-state solution, they're going to have to withdraw from the West Bank enough for the Palestinians to have a rival and contiguous state. They haven't been willing to do that yet.

NPQ | It seems that for about 40 years or so the "status quo" benefited Israel. But now a tipping point has occurred, demographically speaking.

It will not be long before there are more Arabs than Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Isn't this the true existential threat to Israel?

Carter | That's exactly right. I quoted (Defense Minister Ehud) Barak in condemning that as an unacceptable possibility, but it's happening. There will soon be a majority of Arabs in that one-state area, which means that Israel will have only three completely unacceptable options.

One is what you might call ethnic cleansing, which nobody wants, and that means forcing Palestinians to leave the land, and, of course, they would not be received well at all in Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt.

The second option would be to have a nation within which you would have two classes of citizens: One, Jews with votes; the other, Arabs without votes. And that would be the equivalent to the apartheid situation in South Africa.

The third and only remaining option is for the Arabs to have a majority of votes, and with some division among Jews, not much division, and Arabs pretty much voting as a bloc, they would control the whole government and you would no longer have a Jewish state. So those are the options if you don't have a two-state solution.

NPQ | It seems, though, that American public opinion and the American media are more willing after this latest war in Gaza to be critical of Israel.

Carter | In fact, public opinion polls show that that is definitely true. I think that is going to change, and the most vivid, tactful demonstration of change is the election of (Barack) Obama. The first week that he was in office, he made it clear that peace in the Middle East would be a high priority for him. And his choice of a special envoy, George Mitchell, compared to the previous special envoys chosen, is remarkable. This one might be neutral. The others have not been neutral. Sometimes they have been professional lobbyists for Israel.

When we get down to a genuine negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians and have a strong interlocutor, or mediator, or negotiator, like George Mitchell, and you reach a point where they're going to disagree still, which is inevitable—the Israelis say one thing, the Palestinians say another—at that point, it could very well happen that Obama will say, "We've done the best we could, we still have differences between Israelis and Palestinians. This is what I think is a fair solution, and the US will use its influence to bring about this solution."

That would have a major impact because, inherently, a majority of Israelis want to give up the West Bank for peace, and obviously the same thing is desired by the Palestinians. The strong voice of the President of the US will have a major impact on public opinion, not only in this country but also in Israel and in Palestine.

NPQ | Obviously you've got the ear of the new President. What would be the one lesson you would like him to learn from your experiences trying to end the conflict in the Middle East?

Carter | The US has to play a major role early in your administration and be extremely forceful in bringing the negotiations to a conclusion. It's got to be early, deeply committed and persistent.

NPQ | Does that begin with recognizing a role for Hamas in negotiations?

Carter | That could come later.  I met with Hamas last month, and Hamas has committed to me, and publicly on Al Jazeera and so forth, that it would accept any agreement negotiated between Palestine and Israel, provided it is submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum, or if there's an elected unity government (and) the government officials approve that agreement.

That means they accept Israel's right to exist, to live in peace, and so forth. And so that's a major step forward that's there to be plucked when the right time comes along in dealing with Hamas. But to start negotiating right now with Hamas I think would be premature.

NPQ | We now may have an opportunity to reconsider the last 30 years of American foreign policy toward Iran. What advice would you give to President Obama about how to approach Iran?

Carter | He's already promised publicly and privately, both before and after he was elected President, that he was going to open up communications with Iran. The current president of Iran has made some very abusive remarks in reaction to that statement: that the US would have to apologize to Iran for 60 years of abuse, or something like that.

Well, if you discount him and go to the more responsible members of the government and the people of Iran, I think that when Obama reaches out to Iran with a secretary of state going there, or a national security advisor or defense secretary, to explore possibilities for accommodation, I think that person would be received well.

My advice for Obama concerning Iran is just to do what you already promised you would do: open up communications with Iran.

NPQ | Are you optimistic about what things will look like — both in Iran and in the Middle East — eight years from today?

Carter | Yes, I'm optimistic, compared to the present circumstances we are starting from. The best way to constrain Iran's potential movement toward nuclear capability is to have peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to end the official war that still exists between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon.

I think that would remove, to a substantial degree, the threat that Iranians feel and the need to defend themselves. That would lessen the inclination to move to a military weapon, if that's what they plan to do, and in a broad way lessen the influence of Iran, the prestige of Iran, that has built up because of the Iraq war.

So the end of the Iraq war and peace in the Middle East would be the two things that would put Iran back into a place of less negative influence to potential terrorism, and less of a feeling that it would need to have nuclear weapons to defend itself.