Prospects for Peace
One of the major goals of my life, while in political office and since I was retired from the White House by the 1980 election, has been to help ensure a lasting peace for Israelis and others in the Middle East. Many people share the same dream, and at times my own efforts to achieve this goal have been intertwined with some of theirs. It will be good to consider what has brought us to the present situation, the obstacles before us, and some things that can and must be done to bring peace and justice to the region.
No fictional drama could be filled with more excitement, unanticipated happenings, or intriguing characters than this effort to end the ongoing conflict; it is certainly one of the most fascinating and truly important political and military subjects of modern times. The Middle East is perhaps the most volatile region in the world, whose instability is a persistent threat to global peace. It is also the incubator of much of the terrorism that is of such great concern to Americans and citizens of other nations. Although it is not difficult to express the challenges in somewhat simplistic terms, the issues are extremely complex and are derived from both ancient and modern-day political and religious history.
The questions to be considered are almost endless:
What are the prime requisites for peace? What possibilities does the future hold? What common ground already exists on which the contending parties can build a more secure future? Are there better prospects for success from quiescent diplomatic efforts or from bold and public pressure for negotiations? Can there be a stable peace that perpetuates the present circumstances? Must the situation steadily deteriorate until another crisis causes the interested parties to act? Even with full American backing, can Israel's enormous military power prevail over militant Arabs?
Most chilling of all, could the festering differences precipitate a military confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons? It is known that Israel has a major nuclear arsenal and the capability to launch weapons quickly, and some neighboring states are believed to be attempting to acquire their own atomic bombs. Without progress toward peace, desperation or adventurism on either side could precipitate such a confrontation.
There are growing schisms in the Middle East region, with hardening Arab animosity toward the Israeli-United States alliance. The war in Iraq has dramatized the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and has strengthened the influence of Iran. Militant Arabs, including Hamas and Hezbollah, have been given new life and influence as they are seen to be struggling against Israeli occupation of Palestine. The absence of any viable peace initiative exacerbates each individual controversy.
In times of greatest discouragement, ultimate hope has rested on the fact that, overwhelmingly, the people in the region-even those Syrians, Israelis, Lebanese, and Palestinians who are most distrusted by their adversaries-want the peace efforts to succeed. The rhetoric and demands from all sides may be harsh, but there are obvious areas of agreement that can provide a basis for progress. Private discussions with Arab leaders are much more promising than their public statements would lead one to believe, and in Israel there is a strong and persistent constituency for moderation that is too little heard or appreciated in neighboring states or in America.
Continuing impediments have been the desire of some Israelis for Palestinian land, the refusal of some Arabs to accept Israel as a neighbor, the absence of a clear and authoritative Palestinian voice acceptable to Israel, the refusal of both sides to join peace talks without onerous preconditions, the rise in Islamic fundamentalism, and the recent lack of any protracted effort by the United States to pursue peace based on international law and previous agreements ratified by Israel.
In spite of the obvious need to resolve differences, the peace effort does not have a life of its own; it is not self-sustaining. The United States will always be preoccupied with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, or other strategic responsibilities, and there are competing factors that distract Arab leaders who heretofore had been more inclined to focus on peace with Israel and a just solution to the Palestinian question. Many Arab regimes have become increasingly preoccupied with domestic problems, which include resurgent religious identity, rising expectations among more literate constituencies and the emerging middle classes, a fear of further intrusion by external forces, and stirrings of democracy. There is a tendency for these regimes to free themselves from their Palestinian burden.
The situation is obviously not encouraging, but neither is it hopeless if leaders can remember the progress already made and build on past negotiated agreements. Most Arab regimes have accepted the permanent existence of Israel as an indisputable fact and are no longer calling for an end to the State of Israel, having contrived a common statement at an Arab summit in 2002 that offers peace and normal relations with Israel within its acknowledged international borders and in compliance with other U.N. Security Council resolutions. Almost everyone has accepted the ultimate right of the Palestinian people to decide their own sovereign destiny in a climate of peace.
There is no place for sustained violence, which tends to subvert peace initiatives and perpetuate hatred and combat. Some Palestinians have responded to political and military occupation by launching terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, a course of action that is both morally reprehensible and politically counterproductive. These dastardly acts have brought widespread condemnation and discredit on the entire Palestinian community-and are almost suicidal for the Palestinian cause. It has been encouraging to observe an almost complete absence of violence during those all-too-brief intervals when the prospects for peace and justice gave the people hope. This was evident, for instance, during the time of the Camp David Accords in 1978, and when the Palestinians were welcomed to the Madrid conference in 1991, as well as during the several Palestinian elections.
It has always been clear that the antagonists cannot be expected to take the initiative to resolve their own differences. Hatred and distrust in the Middle East are too ingrained and pride is too great for any of the disputing parties to offer invitations or concessions that they know will almost inevitably be rejected. Accommodation must be sought through negotiation with all parties to the dispute, with each having fair representation and the right to participate in free discussions. Compromise is necessary from both sides, with clear distinctions made between what their dreams and ideology dictate and what is pragmatically possible. Although some extremists disagree, most Israelis have learned that they cannot reconstruct the Kingdom of David, which includes all of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and parts of Lebanon and Jordan. At the same time, most Palestinians have been forced to accept the fact that the nation of Israel will never be erased from the map. Neither side can predict or impose on others the ultimate outcome of negotiations, and any final agreement has to be both voluntary and acceptable to both sides.
Strong support for peace talks must come from the United States, preferably involving representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. Until recently, America's leaders were known and expected to exert maximum influence in an objective, nonbiased way to achieve peace in the Middle East. In order to resume this vital role, the United States must be a trusted participant, evenhanded, consistent, unwavering, and enthusiastic-a partner with both sides and not a judge of either. Although it is inevitable that at times there will be a tilt one way or the other, in the long run the role of honest broker must once again be played by Washington.
When a promising negotiation evolves, the United States will have to join other wealthy nations in offering the political and economic incentives necessary to bolster what will be at first a fragile understanding and then be prepared to help the peacemakers fend off the radicals and extremists who will seek to subvert what is being carefully created and nurtured.
The three most basic premises are quite clear:
1. Israel's right to exist within recognized borders-and to live in peace-must be accepted by Palestinians and all other neighbors;
2. The killing of noncombatants in Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon by bombs, missile attacks, assassinations, or other acts of violence cannot be condoned; and
3. Palestinians must live in peace and dignity in their own land as specified by international law unless modified by good-faith negotiations with Israel.
The recent outbreak of violence in Gaza and between Israel and Lebanon is vivid proof of the need for a comprehensive peace agreement. The United States stands almost alone in its undeviating backing of Israel, while Arab support for militant groups approaches unanimity as violence continues. People of most other nations strongly condemn the excessive destruction and civilian casualties by Israel as they deplore the deliberate provocation of Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah.
In the final analysis, the different peoples of the Middle East have their own viewpoints, their own grievances, their own goals and aspirations. But it is Israel that remains the key, the tiny vortex around which swirl the winds of hatred, intolerance, and bloodshed. The indomitable people of Israel are still attempting to define their future, the basic character of their nation, its geographical boundaries, and conditions under which the legitimate rights of the Palestinians can be honored and an accommodation forged with its neighbors. These internal decisions will have to be made in consultation with Arabs who are basically antagonistic-perhaps as difficult a political prospect as history has ever seen. Many Israelis, like their neighbors, are eagerly seeking a measure of normalized existence, but the verbal threats from Iran and some radical Arabs and the terrorist attacks in the occupied territories and even within Israel have kept alive the feelings of distrust and alienation among Israelis toward their neighbors. The most extreme and obnoxious statements have come from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has described the Holocaust as "a myth" and urged that Israel be annihilated or moved from the Middle East to Europe.
The Arabs must recognize the reality that is Israel, just as the Israelis must accept a Palestinian state in the small remaining portion of territorial homeland allotted to the Palestinians by the United Nations and previous peace agreements. Palestinian human rights must be protected as generally recognized under international law, including self-determination, free speech, equal treatment of all persons, freedom from prolonged military domination and imprisonment without trial, the right of families to be reunited, the sanctity of ownership of property, and the right of nonbelligerent people to live in peace.
Excerpted from Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Copyright © 2006 by Jimmy Carter. All rights reserved.