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Jimmy Carter Defends 'Peace Not Apartheid'

Cover of 'Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid'
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Former President Jimmy Carter finds himself in a defensive posture after criticism of his new book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. The best-seller has generated a passionate response in critics who say it is slanted toward Palestinians, and full of inaccuracies.

Since the book was published, Carter says he has been branded an anti-Semite and a bigot. Reaction to the book included the resignation of 14 members of a Carter Center community board, who say Carter puts too much blame on Israel.

Carter responded to those charges at Brandeis University this week, where he was later rebutted by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz.

In that appearance, the former president defended the book's accuracy, save one passage Carter now calls "terribly worded," that seemed to justify terrorism by Palestinians on Israeli citizens.

Carter says he was not completely surprised that his choice of the word "apartheid" in the book's title garnered criticism.

Yet Carter says he hopes his book will raise awareness about conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Here's the conversation with Steve Inskeep in full:

Mr. President, perhaps I could begin with the title of your book, which has caused a bit of debate. Could you just make, briefly, the best case you can for why "apartheid" is the best word to use?

Well, I'll try to make a perfect case. Apartheid is a word that is an accurate description of what has been going on in the West Bank, and it's based on the desire or avarice of a minority of Israelis for Palestinian land. It's not based on racism. Those caveats are clearly made in the book. This is a word that's a very accurate description of the forced separation within the West Bank of Israelis from Palestinians and the total domination and oppression of Palestinians by the dominant Israeli military.

Why not just describe that rather than bring in this word that's freighted with so much history from another place?

It would be hard to give that definition that I've just given you in a title of a book. The book is quite descriptive.

Would you describe for us, simply because the book has been criticized for its details, how did you write the book?

How did I write it? On a word processor, a computer. I wrote every word myself. I never have had any co-authors. I based it on my, you might say, 33 years of experience. Even after I left office, I traveled extensively in the Middle East. I doubt that any other prominent human being has been blessed with such a great opportunity, as I have, to actually know what's going on there.

You've been challenged in your recollection of meetings for example with Hafez al-Assad, the one-time president of Syria, and it's been alleged that your description of Assad makes him look more reasonable and makes the Israelis look less reasonable than what might actually have been the case. What was your version based on? Did you go back to notes and other documents that you had from the time?

Of course, I began meeting with Hafez al-Assad, who is now deceased as you know, back when I was president. I think back in back in 1977 in May or June. I have forgotten exactly which, but I met with him, trying to get him to support a peace process. On one occasion he invited me to meet with him and his entire family, and I met all his children and got to know them. One of them was a college student who is now the president of Syria.

But when you recollect, for example, your 1990 meeting with him, at which you asked about the Golan Heights, how that dispute might be settled with Israel, were you working from your own notes?

Of course, from my own notes, and my wife takes notes when I'm there and we have been very careful to make sure that all those descriptions are accurate.

Ken Stein, as you know, a former colleague of yours at the Carter Center, has alleged that his recollection of that meeting is somewhat different.

Ken Stein was a professor that I took along with me. Ken has attended some of the meetings with me. The more highly sensitive meetings I was the only one there except my wife to take notes.

Oh, you're saying that he did not go to all the meetings that you went to?

Of course, that's right.

There's also been some criticism, which you addressed this week at Brandeis University, of a sentence on page 213 of your book.

That was a terribly worded sentence which implied, obviously in a ridiculous way, that I approved terrorism and terrorist acts against Israeli citizens.

The sentence said that Palestinians and Arabs in general should end suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, when international laws and the ultimate goals of the roadmap are accepted by Israel?

The "when" was obviously a crazy and stupid word. My publishers have been informed about that and have changed the sentence in all future editions of the book.

Has that sent you flipping through the pages of the book to see if there is anything else there that wasn't expressed the way you had intended?

I don't believe so.

You mentioned that you have been labeled an anti-Semite. You do use the word apartheid in the title of your book, which defenders of Israel regarded as a label that called into a lot of bad associations. Whether you agree with any specific charge there, would you agree that kind of labeling is not very productive?

I think it's productive. I had two basic hopes for this book. One, that it would stimulate peace talks. Second, that it would reveal for the first time, to the American public, the horrible oppression and persecution of the Palestinian people and it would precipitate for the first time any substantive debate on these issues.

One other thing, Mr. President, one of the fascinating parts of this book to me is an area that has not been as controversial. It's one of the earlier passages in which you describe a time when you were governor of Georgia and you were invited to Israel by the government of Israel to look around, and you ended up standing on the banks of the Jordan River. Could describe what you did there and how that affected you?

I was given complete freedom to go where I wished. There was a security border along the Jordan River. There was a gate, and I got permission from one of the guards and I waded out in the Jordan River at the same site that I felt from my own knowledge of Christianity, that Jesus Christ was baptized. So, we just immersed ourselves in the culture and biblical history, and current political affairs of Israel in that visit.

If I may read a sentence from that passage, you write: "at the end of this visit, we left convinced that the Israelis were dominant, but just. The Arabs were quiescent, because their rights were being protected and the political and military situation was destined to remain stable until land was swapped for peace."

That's exactly right, and the premise then, you have to realize at that time there were only 1,500 total Israeli settlers in the entire occupied territories. This was before the massive Israeli confiscation of land and colonization of the choice sites. But the premise then, undisputed, was that Israel would soon withdraw from the occupied territories. So that impression I had was quite accurate at the time.

Can you think of one event or series of events that has caused your view to change so dramatically over those years?

Yes, the apparently permanent acquisition, confiscation and colonization of choice sites throughout the West Bank. These, the Israelis have taken away from the Palestinians. Apparently with ideas by some Israelis, to keep those areas permanently. That's the root of the problem that prevents peace coming to the Mideast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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