Jimmy Carter interviewed by Nicolads Rossier, July 2004 at the Carter Center in Atlanta. ©AgorasMedia
Twenty years ago, I was privileged to meet former President Jimmy Carter at the Presidential Library in Atlanta for a film on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today I am making the full interview available as President Carter decided recently to move into hospice care.
Carter’s moral courage and dedication to humanitarian and peacemaking work across the globe are widely accepted and recognized among historians worldwide. It makes him one of the most beloved US presidents here and abroad. For decades he and his wife Rosalind have helped build thousands of homes for the poor in America and dozens of other countries in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his role in the Middle Peace conflict in brokering the Camp David Accords. Very few Nobel Peace Prize recipients have been as transformative as Carter. Gorbachev, Mandela, and de Klerk also come to mind as high on the list. But Carter managed to mediate between Israel and its biggest Arab rival Egypt and bring about the first significant peace agreement in the region. A feat that no other American president has been able to do before or since. I asked Carter about his views on the Geneva Accord, also known as the Geneva Initiative, and the challenges faced in the Middle East Peace process.
Carter believed the Geneva Initiative was the last rational attempt to make a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Twenty years later, peace between Palestinians and Israelis remains elusive, but the comments made by President Carter are still relevant today. As for this peace agreement, experts on both sides believe that it is still the most practical and fair document to serve as the basis for a lasting and viable peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
You’ve been involved in the last 40 years in the Middle East Peace Process, and you recently supported the Geneva Initiative. What are your hope for this initiative and the Middle East Peace Process in general?
It’s obvious to me that the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Jordanians and the Lebanese and the Syrians and the Egyptians all basically want peace. That’s the people themselves. The optical has always been in the Mid East leaders, getting them to agree to a set of commitments that could lead to a permanent solution to this process; that is, a permanent peace. I know that the agreement that we worked out between Israel and Egypt more than 25 years ago has never been violated on either side. And I was hoping that it would provide a foundation for a future agreement in its totality. I think that Geneva Accord represents the best, I would say, a blueprint for future peace in the Middle East, and I think the only one. Obviously, it would have to be modified as circumstances change and as direct negotiations take place, and as various leaders exert into the process their own opinions. But I think that the basic premise of the Geneva Accord is the only foundation that I see in its totality to cover all the aspects of what is necessary for bringing peace to Israel, recognition by Israel’s neighbors, and justice and hope for the Palestinians.
One of the main critiques on the Arab side was to say that it doesn’t really recognize the right of return for refugees and that it was seen as being unfair for that reason. What’s your opinion?
Well, the right of return has been a premise that’s been endorsed by United Nations resolutions from the very beginning of all the foundation of the nation of Israel, and I think it’s a consideration or premise that has to be honored. Exactly how it’s consummated, though, is something that the Geneva Accord tried to address. And I think relatively in a balanced way there will have to be some limit in the future on how many Palestinians actually return into the interior of the nation of Israel, and it doesn’t preclude that acknowledgment of the rights, but it does give the Israeli government the future responsibility of deciding how many and when they should come in and obviously where they live. I think the main other two premises for the right of return being honored as a principle is a compensation for those who’ve lost their property in an honest and fair way and the right of return to a Palestinian state, which I hope will be established in the future. If the international community and the US government don’t intervene to stop the building of settlements and stop the building of the fence, what would be the window for such an initiative to be implemented?
Well, there won’t be any window. That’s open wide enough for hope if the settlements continue and if the so-called fence or barrier wall is extended and intrudes in an unwarranted fashion on the lives and property of the Palestinians. So if these two premises exist, there is no hope for peace. The premises that have guided all negotiators in the past until recent years and have continued to guide all American presidents since the United States has played a preeminent role as a mediator/negotiator has been the settlements in the West Bank were illegal and were an obstacle to peace, and that they should be withdrawn from the West Bank, which is Palestinian territory. The Geneva Accords recognized the necessity for some deviation from this basic principle, and that is that certain portions of the West Bank would continue to be used by established Israeli settlements. I think more than half the Israeli suburbs would be authorized under the Geneva Accords to retain their place geographically. And as a token response, a small portion of Israeli territory would be ceded to the Palestinians, which makes it appear to be fair, and if that’s done, then I think it’ll be fine. As far as the wall is concerned, being built with major plans for intrusion deeply into the West Bank and the territory enjoyed by Palestinians, that’s something that will probably have to be addressed two-fold. One is through the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court. I think the recent decision on one aspect of the wall has been encouraging. In my opinion, the wall can be there, and won’t hurt anything, provided it adheres fairly closely to the Green Line. There might ultimately be places where the wall would be on the Israeli side of the Green Line. There might be other places where it’s on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, but in general, adhere to that. And I think that the major settlements that had been built immediately contiguous to Israel and contiguous to the major settlements and Israelites in Jerusalem, I think that was a fair approach, although not a final one.
So what do you think would be the impact of this controversial ruling two weeks ago by the International Court? Will that have any impact? What’s your opinion ?
Well, the international community would have to decide, first of all, in legal terms, the relationship between the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Security Council itself, and this decision would not be an easy or proper one. But with the influence of the United States exerted almost exclusively on Israel, I believe that the practical result will be that Israel will not adhere to the ruling of the International Criminal Court and will ignore the ruling. But it’s a matter of record now on the global scene, and I think it will be a deterrent, or a small deterrent at least, to the further encroachment into the West Bank of any future building of the wall.
Most European nations think that the US government over the last 50 years has been one-sided in supporting Israel, and do you share that opinion, and if not totally, why do you think such an opinion arises in Europe?
Well, I have to say that I’m a little bit biased in my response because I don’t think that most Israelis, or most Egyptians, or most Palestinians, or most knowledgeable Europeans would think that under my administration, we were overly biased toward one side or the other. I think we had a very fair approach, and all the agreements that I helped to consummate at Camp David between the Israeli leader and Egyptian leader were affirmed later on by the parliaments and governments of Israel and Egypt. If it had been unfair what I negotiated, they wouldn’t have been approved. And I would say that up until this present administration in Washington, there has been a genuine effort by all presidents, Republican and Democrat, to play a fair role as honest brokers in this very difficult circumstance. Never relinquishing our commitment to the preservation of the peace and existence of Israel, but to provide at the same time justice and fairness, and hope for the Palestinians. This was exhibited by George Bush Sr. when he was President when he even threatened at one time to withhold all American aid from Israel if they built settlements illegally, in my opinion, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I recall. And President Bill Clinton, during the last months of his term, I think he gave his best effort to create a proposal that might be acceptable in the future to resolve the basic differences. So except for the incumbent President George W. Bush, all previous presidents had tried at least in their own ways to be trusted by both sides and to work with both sides to reach a common agreement acceptable to the negotiators themselves. Most commentators said that after July 2000, when Barack and Arafat met under the supervision of Bill Clinton (Camp David II), Arafat ran away from a huge chance for peace. Do you agree with that?
There are two answers to that question. One is that Arafat ran away from a much better proposal than he was ever able to get from Barack’s successors, and so that was a good proposal compared to what is now a prospect for the Palestinians at the present time.
I’ve seen the detailed maps of what was proposed, and I don’t think that there was any way for Arafat to accept that as a final agreement. It still committed the Palestinians to two very difficult premises. One is that there were a wide array of Israeli settlements guaranteed to be maintained geographically almost all over the West Bank. The places in between the settlements and the roads combining them were offered to the Palestinians. And the premise also that was very difficult for Palestinians was that East Jerusalem was inherently part of Israel, but the Palestinians would have very generous rights to intrude on Israeli territory and East Jerusalem. Those two premises were very difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinians to accept. So another claim by the Palestinian leaders was that this was not a proposal that was negotiated by the two leaders in advance. It was a unilateral proposal that was developed in Israel, in effect approved by the Americans, and presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition before Arafat, and I think he decided to leave it. In my opinion, he made a mistake by peremptorily rejecting the entire proposal. I think he should have accepted it as a good step forward, at least and should have said, Let’s continue to negotiate to improve some of the problems in it that I still see for the Palestinian people. He didn’t do that. And he left the impression in which — I don’t think it’s inaccurate, that he could have done more to build upon that generous proposal from the side point of view of the Israelis. Subsequently, though, that proposal was taken as it existed, and further negotiations were carried out based on that proposal and ultimately were encapsulated in the Geneva Accord, and that I think is a basic premise that the Geneva Accord has a good foundation in historical events. The Geneva Accord was a great improvement over what Barack and Clinton proposed to Arafat, and I think the Geneva Accords, to repeat myself, and the premises therein do provide the only overall proposal, all of which our future negotiations can hope to be successful. If the basic principles of the Geneva Accord are rejected, I don’t see any hope for peace at any time in the future in Israel. I think also there has been what may be a firm declaration on the part of some Arab leaders, many of them very influential ones, including Crown Prince Abdullah and Saudi Arabia, that if Israel would agree with the basic principles of the Geneva Accords that full recognition of Israel, its right to exist, its right to exist in peace and harmony with its neighbors might be forthcoming. That’s another factor that is still uncertain, but it does offer a promise that future good-faith negotiations can be successful.
There is this belief outside, I mean mostly outside the United States, that there is a strong connection between the suffering of the Palestinians, the so-called one-sided US policy in favor of Israel, and basically the growing of terrorism, Islamic terrorism. What’s your opinion?
Well, I have privately and publicly condemned the ill-advised policies of the Bush Administration concerning any hope for peace in the Middle East. The so-called road map principles are very good, but we have not pursued them with any degree of persistence or tenacity, or aggressiveness, and in the last two and a half years, there have been no real contacts between the Bush Administration and the Palestinian community to try to find some basis for negotiation, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that the rise of violence in the Holy Land itself has been attributable to the lack of hope, a lack of progress, a lack of good faith negotiations in the Mid-East Peace Process. At the same time, I think the general feeling throughout the Arab world is that Palestinian rights have been neglected at best and ignored at worst, violated perhaps even, and this is a rouse of an unprecedented level of animosity and distrust, even among countries that have formerly been among our closest allies; namely, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the people of those countries overwhelmingly now look with distrust and condemnation on the United States primarily because of the question that you asked, whether or not Palestinian rights were being honored in Washington. So I think that in the future, there needs to be more sensitive attention given to the full incorporation of the fellow Palestinian point of view in negotiations, and I think that they should be and will have to be patterned after the principles that have been incorporated in the Geneva Accords.
There was part of my question actually I didn’t ask you, but do you think there are enough public discussions among politicians here in the US about the Middle East peace process?
No, it’s not easy to discuss the Mid-East peace process in the United States.
You have done it so well, and people like Joe Biden* are very fair and balanced and talk about these issues over and over.
That’s small — there are few voices that have spoken out, I think, in what I consider to be an objective way about the Mid-East peace process. But politically speaking, in the US Congress and among candidates for the White House, the political consequences of addressing Palestinian issues publicly and forthrightly and fairly are very severe, and I think the strong influence of Israeli supporters in the United States has tended to preclude any open and balanced discussion of the issues in our country.
On the other hand, do you think that Europe has also been in that process, not very balanced and very much anti-Israel and probably too biased as well in not mentioning probably also the fault of some Arab states through the whole process for the last 50 years?
Well, one reason that the United States assumed the leadership and the altercations involving Israel was because of a default of Europeans to assume their international responsibilities, and we kind of fell into that responsibility, as you know. I’m not really familiar with the details of public statements in countries like Germany and France and Italy, and other European capitals. Whether they are grossly balanced toward the Palestinians to the detriment of Israel’s right to peace and full recognition, I don’t know. But what has to be done, regardless of all those theories and outside opinions, is that whoever is responsible for negotiating and whoever might hope to claim the trust of, say, the Palestinians and the Israelis at the same time, which is likely the United States, has to have a common commitment to the rights of both sides, and a clear and understandable, a publicly comprehensible status as being honest and trying to realize the rights and honor the stature and the privileges and the hopes and dreams of both sides. That has to be done.
Apart from you, in the history of that conflict, there is nobody who has been able to bring huge steps toward peace. Do you think somehow that we will have — you see, if war continues and the peace doesn’t come to the Middle East, do you see the United States with the international community coming and going from a job of peace broker to probably even going into being a peace enforcer?
Well, the ultimate decision about the future of Israel and the future of the West Bank and Gaza really resides in Israel, and I think that this is where the debates are taking place. They don’t take place in the United States. They take place in Jerusalem, and they take place among Israelis. What is the future of Israel? What is the future of the Israeli people? What is the future of a Jewish state? What is a fair approach to the Palestinian concerns and problems, and rights that will most likely end the threat of terrorism, of violence against Israeli people and ensure peace and stability in the region? The Palestinians don’t have the power to make those final decisions. The concerted military and political authority of the entire Arab world doesn’t have that ability. It’s only Israel that can decide its own future. And so the basic decision to be made by Israel, which is quite clear to me and to many, is when it’s due, do we want to have Israel intact within its original boundaries as modified to accommodate some settlements in the West Bank, in peace with an adjacent Palestinian state recognized by every Arab nation as having a right to existing peace and diplomatic status on an equal basis for the rest of the world. In other words, does Israel want permanent peace with recognition, relationships that are positive with its neighbors, with the rights and dreams of the Palestinians recognized, or not? And in my opinion, a key question here that hasn’t yet been resolved is, what about the Israeli settlements? If the Israelis say, we reject all of that hopeful permanent peace and recognition with our neighbors because we insist on the right to build settlements and colonize the Palestinian territories, then that’s a decision that I think would be mistaken but is one that the Israelis themselves would have to make.
You have been a man of great faith over all your life and also in your political life. I want you to tell me if you have been heavily involved in the Middle East, what, in your view — and that’s a difficult question, but in your view, are one or two main factors that are preventing peace in that holy region of the world?
Well, again, I think the basic problem is two-fold. On the Palestinian/Arab side is their refusal clearly to acknowledge now or to promise in the future that Israel will have a right, an unquestioned right, to live in peace as a respected neighbor. And that commitment, if made, could greatly alleviate concerns in Israel and lead toward better prospects for peace. On the Israeli side, I would say it’s the determination of some Israelis; I think a minority of Israelis, who have fervent religious beliefs, that Israel includes the West Bank and Gaza and that the Palestinians have no sovereign rights over that area of land. And that question in Israel and the refusal of the Arab world, including Palestinians, to recognize Israel, those are the two factors that haven’t yet been realized. There’s another important thing to remember: Everyone talks about balance, but if you look back at the history of the region, whenever there was a patent and clear commitment to peace, there has been no violence. When I was negotiating at Camp David, and for several years after that, there was no violence, there were no threats of terrorist acts, on the one hand, or the destruction of Palestinian homes, on the other hand. Later when the Norwegians negotiated under the leadership of Rabin and Peres and Arafat, the so-called Oslo Accords, there was a period of complete harmony and a total absence of violence and fear. And even later, in January of 1996, when the Carter Centre was invited to go over and monitor the first election for the Palestinians when they chose their leaders for parliament and for President, there was no violence at all. There was no threat of intimidation, no fear of violence or terrorism. I was there, my daughter was there, my grandson was there monitoring an honest and fair, and safe election, and there was hope that this was a new era. So the point is that in the future, in my opinion, if the same circumstances can be recreated once again as at Camp David, as in the Oslo Agreement, as during the election process for the Palestinians, then peace will prevail, and that’s a time and a circumstance about which I dream and for which I pray.
Mr. President, thank you so much for your time.
* My position on Biden and the IP conflict has evolved in 20 years.
You can watch on our youtube channel the taped version of this interview.