There he goes again.
Jimmy Carter was a failed President. As a former President, he has performed some useful pubic service, using the prestige of that position to further some worthwhile causes. Like Captain Ahab chasing the whale, however, he has often seemed obsessed with the achievement that has eluded him — a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Apparently frustrated by his inability to make any headway toward this goal, he places the blame for the impasse solely on Israel.
Carter’s latest foray into Middle East diplomacy is an op-ed piece published recently in the New York Times (“America Must Recognize Palestine”). In that piece. Carter urges President Obama, in the few weeks remaining before the inauguration of the new president, to grant diplomatic recognition to a State of Palestine and to support a Security Council resolution “laying out the parameters for resolving the conflict.” Carter’s op-ed is a fairly crude attempt to advance the “peace process” in the same way Carter has advocated in the past — by pressuring Israel to make even more unilateral concessions.
Given the importance he attaches to advancing the “peace process”, it’s easy to understand the urgency that Carter attaches to anything that creates the illusion of progress. Despite his other achievements — or perhaps because of them — his inability to make any progress in this area clearly rankles. He’s ninety-two years old and battling cancer. In a few weeks, when Donald Trump takes the oath of office, whatever influence Carter imagines he can bring to bear will be gone.
I have no personal animosity toward the man, and I do not wish him ill. As a practical matter, however, he is unlikely to outlive Trump’s first (and hopefully only) term. This op-ed, with its plea to Obama to use his last weeks in office to pressure Israel further, is thus an act of desperation, what football fans call (you should excuse the expression) a “hail Mary”.
I doubt that President Obama will pay much attention to Carter’s urgings. Unlike Carter, Obama is only 55 years old and can expect to remain active and exercise significant influence in national and world affairs for decades to come. He’s leaving office with unusually high approval ratings, surpassed only by those of his wife. Moreover, his is the first administration in living memory untainted by significant scandal. Why would he risk his reputation and influence on a symbolic gesture that at best will not bring peace any closer? I know that, on a personal level he did not get along particularly well with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it would be out of character — to say nothing of counterproductive — for him to take such a risk out of spite.
Like most of his attempts to promote his version of peace in the Middle East, Carter’s Times op-ed piece is wrongheaded and exemplifies why he has never been able to make progress. He begins by placing an Israel-PA agreement in the context of the original Camp David Accords, which were signed in 1978 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. That accord was signed at Camp David, and President Carter, as well as senior American diplomats, did play a constructive role in ironing our the details. What Carter ignores, however, is that the initiative that led ultimately to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty came not from Washington, but from Cairo.
Sadat’s offer to come to Israel and address the Knesset took everyone by surprise, including Begin and most of the Egyptian cabinet. Begin, to his credit, responded immediately with an official invitation, and the entire visit was put together in a remarkably short period of time. I happened to be in Israel at the time, spending my junior year at Hebrew University, and I remember well the palpable excitement with which Israelis of all political stripes greeted Sadat’s visit. The excitement had subsided somewhat by the time Begin and Sadat arrived at Camp David, but both were clearly ready to make a deal and mostly needed assistance with the details.
Carter’s Times op-ed scrupulously avoids mentioning what is often called Camp David II, an attempt by President Bill Clinton to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians as Carter had between Israel and Egypt. When President Clinton presented Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat with a document setting forth the parameters of a projected peace agreement, Arafat stormed out of Camp David without even bothering to make a counteroffer.
Why did Camp David II fail where Camp David I had succeeded? I don’t think that Bill Clinton was a less skilled mediator than Jimmy Carter, and I certainly don’t believe that Ehud Barak was more inflexible than Menachem Begin had been. But Arafat was no Sadat. Anwar Sadat had already demonstrated his commitment to peace with Israel — a commitment for which he ultimately paid with his life — but Arafat’s willingness to make peace was always suspect.
Although Arafat’s desire for peace with Israel was questionable at best, there was some reason believe that if Arafat had been prepared to make peace, he might have been able to persuade the Palestinian people to go along. His successor, by contrast, the current P.A. President, Mahmoud Abbas, does not have the stature to bring that off, nor is there another Palestinian leader on the horizon who can easily be imagined as playing Sadat’s role. That doesn’t mean that Israel and the Palestinians will never know peace — never is a long time, and circumstances can change rapidly in that part of the world — but it does mean that Jimmy Carter almost certainly will not live to see it.
Carter’s op-ed contains no acknowledgement of the fact that Israel is a sovereign state whose leaders will rightly resist any peace deal that does not, in their view, contain adequate provisions for their country’s security. Indeed, he appears uninterested in how Israelis would react if Obama, following his advice, were to recognize Palestine as a state. His focus, rather, is on whether
United States recognition of a Palestinian state would make it easier for other countries that have not recognized Palestine to do so.
He appears to attach less significance to the negotiation of a treaty between the parties than to a
Security Council resolution on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…laying out the parameters for resolving the conflict…. [and] reaffirming ]the illegality of all Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders …
Unwilling to give up his dream of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, yet forced to recognize that the gap between Israel and the Palestinians remains far too large to be bridged through negotiations, Carter puts his faith in the ability of the United States to strong-arm Israel into a deal its leaders don’t want and reaches out to President Obama to join him in pursuing his quixotic quest. It won’t work – not just because Obama is unlikely to go along but also because even if he did everything Carter wants, it would not bring a real peace any closer. No Israeli government will allow itself to be pressured into committing national suicide, which means that, for peace to become a reality, the Palestinians as well as Israel will need to make significant concessions. Unfortunately, the process of persuading the Palestinian people of that necessity has yet to begin.
The biggest obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians today is the Palestinian delusion that they need not compromise because the world will force Israel to make whatever concessions are necessary to produce peace on Palestinian terms. While holding fast to that delusion, the Palestinians have refused to engage Israel in negotiations, thus cutting off the only viable path to both peace and their own state. Ironically, no one has done more to feed this delusion –and thus to push the prospect of peace farther into the remote future — than former President Jimmy Carter.