Jimmy Carter’s warning: Without peace, Israel must face ‘apartheid’

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The U.S. president who has lived longer than any other is in his final days. The news that Jimmy Carter, 98, is in hospice care has led to an outpouring of reflections of his life and career, allowing the 39th president to be memorialized before his death. His presidency may have only lasted one term, but his legacy sprawled well beyond it.

In 2002, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development,” the Norwegian committee’s citation noted. In the years after he left office, Carter devoted much of his work to championing the cause of peace and democracy around the world. The center that bears his name has led election monitoring efforts in dozens of countries, helped guide nations toward reconciliation after civil wars, and pushed to strengthen human rights and the rule of law in every continent.

Carter’s most famous peacemaking effort started in 1978 at Camp David, where his administration brokered peace talks between Israel and Egypt under President Anwar al-Sadat. The resulting treaty, which ended decades of hostility between Israel and its most threatening neighbor, remains a linchpin for both regional stability and U.S. interests in the Middle East. It also helped guarantee Israeli military control over the territories it had seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, including the West Bank.

Carter, argued Edward Luce of the Financial Times, single-handedly “did more for Israel’s security than any U.S. president since.”

And yet it is in Israel and among a wing of American backers of Israel, where Carter remains vilified. Anger at Carter dogged his efforts at brokering the agreements at Camp David, with some commentators then leveling accusations of antisemitism at him. “Even recognizing the Palestinians as a people with a right to national self-determination was enough to set off the equivalent of a four-alarm fire bell among American Jewish leaders,” wrote Eric Alterman, author of the new book, “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.”

Unlike all other living former occupants of the White House, Carter explicitly viewed Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank as a violation of international law, an impediment to the creation of a separate, viable Palestinian state, and campaigned against them after he left office. In 2006, Carter published a book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” that warned that “apartheid” conditions prevailed in Israel in a context where millions of Palestinians were deprived of the same rights as their Israeli neighbors and where the expansion of settlements was only furthering Palestinian dispossession.

“He took Egypt off the battlefield for Israel, but he always insisted that Israel was also obligated to suspend building new settlements in the West Bank and allow the Palestinians a measure of self-rule,” explained Carter biographer Kai Bird. “Over the decades, he would argue that the settlements had become a roadblock to a two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He was not afraid to warn everyone that Israel was taking a wrong turn on the road to apartheid. Sadly, some critics injudiciously concluded that he was being anti-Israel or worse.”

Indeed, the backlash to “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” was severe. Fourteen members of the community board of his own Carter Center resigned; Democratic Party eminences like former president Bill Clinton and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly rebuked him; a wide swath of the Washington commentariat, including op-ed writers in this paper, came out aghast that he could link the racist former regime in South Africa to the United States’ most-favored democracy in the Middle East. He was accused of antisemitism. To this day, Carter’s critics describe the work as “ahistorical and tendentious.”

The Palestinian Health Ministry said on Feb. 22 that at least 10 people were killed and dozens injured following a West Bank raid by the Israel Defense Forces. (Video: Storyful)

At the time, Carter was bemused, but defiant. “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,” he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in a January 2007 interview. “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.”

Carter, an elder statesman of the West, was sticking his neck out in ways perhaps none of his counterparts had before or since. And the years that followed have hardly discredited his view of things. That a form of “apartheid” prevails in Israel and the occupied territories it controls is now the determination of the world’s most influential human rights organizations, as well as a leading rights group within Israel.

Pro-settler, anti-Arab extremist factions that were on the outermost fringes of Israel’s far right a decade-and-a-half ago now sit at the heart of the most right-wing government in Israeli history. They have already launched on a program that would lend more credence to the “apartheid” claim — touting in their platform an exclusivist Jewish supremacy over the entirety of the land, while pushing through legislative and ministerial maneuvers that may set in motion the de jure annexation of major chunks of the West Bank.

Carter warned about this drift for years, including in 2020 when the Trump administration published its now discarded “peace plan” that essentially waved away the need for an independent Palestinian state. “The plan will doom the only viable solution to this long-running conflict,” Carter said in a statement.

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