As Israelis go to the polls in the country’s early general election, we speak with former US President Jimmy Carter. His latest book is We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan that Will Work. President Carter says he wrote the book because President Obama is “facing a major opportunity and responsibility to lead in ending conflict between Israel and its neighbors.” President Carter writes, “The time is now. Peace is possible.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The leaders of Israel’s two main parties, Likud and Kadima, have both claimed victory in an early general election. In a few minutes, we’ll turn to analysis of the election results, but first we go to former US President Jimmy Carter. His latest book is We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan that Will Work. President Carter says he wrote the book because President Obama is “facing a major opportunity and responsibility to lead in ending conflict between Israel and its neighbors.” President Carter writes, “The time is now. Peace is possible.”
President Carter’s previous book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, generated a great deal of controversy here in the United States. Last year, he was removed from the speakers list at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, reportedly because of his outspoken criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has publicly claimed he pushed Obama not to allow Carter to speak at the convention.
Well, yesterday I interviewed President Carter yesterday about the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: President Carter, it’s good to have you on Democracy Now!
JIMMY CARTER: Well, thank you, Amy. It’s good to be with you and your millions of viewers and listeners.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’ve written a new book. It’s called We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan that Will Work. What is that plan?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, the plan is a diametric opposite from what is the trend now by Israel in the West Bank — and that is to make one state, one nation, all the way from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River — and that is the two-day solution, which is generally adopted by the United States government, the road map for the international community, the United Nations resolutions, and also unanimously by all twenty-two Arab nations. That is a two-state solution based on Israel’s withdrawal, basically to the 1967 borders, the sharing of Jerusalem and so forth. And that’s been spelled out and accepted for a long time.
And so, I think that the plan that I outline in my book is one that has practical aspects of modification of the basic two-state solution that both sides can accept overwhelmingly. One of the key issues would be to leave about half of the Israeli settlers in Palestine where they are — that is, those nearest to Jerusalem — and swap them an equivalent amount of land, say, acre for acre, to be used for a corridor, a narrow corridor between the West Bank and Gaza, about thirty-five miles’ distance. And that could be used to make a train route or either a highway still to be controlled by Israel’s security. I discussed this particular plan with Ariel Sharon in January of 2005, and he agreed with me completely on it.
AMY GOODMAN: President Carter, the Israeli attack on Gaza, do you think it set back hopes for peace now?
JIMMY CARTER: In a way. I think it was a completely unnecessary war — and I wrote an editorial for the Washington Post accordingly — because it could have been avoided easily.
But in the long term, it may actually produce a more enthusiastic move toward a comprehensive settlement, in that for the first time, really, in a long time, maybe forever, the European countries have been directly involved in trying to bring about an accommodation. The President of France, Sarkozy, has been over there. The Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, has been over there. And the European Union leaders have been over there to work with the Egyptians, who have been negotiating for a number of months now between Israel and Hamas, for instance, to bring about a permanent ceasefire.
What Hamas wants is just to have an open supply, an adequate supply of food and water and fuel and medicine to go in to the one-and-a-half million Palestinians who are imprisoned, basically, within Gaza. And what the Israelis want is an end of Hamas rockets and mortar fire. So, those two things can be worked out. So I think it may be that this horrendous attack on Gaza will precipitate a more enthusiastic move toward a comprehensive peace agreement.
AMY GOODMAN: You say that it could have been avoided. You actually met with Hamas in December. We interviewed Robert Pastor on our broadcast, who went with you. Can you talk about how you think this attack could have been avoided?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, I went over there first in April, and I met with the leaders of Israel and Fatah and Egypt and Syria and Hamas. And in the past, Hamas has insisted on a ceasefire only if it included the West Bank. And Israel was adamantly opposed to that. So I induced Hamas to accept a ceasefire just for Gaza, and the Egyptians negotiated that, and it began the 19th of June, and it lasted for six months.
Toward the end of that period, obviously it was breaking down, so I went back to the area and met with the Hamas leaders. And they said that they would have a complete ceasefire if Israel would just restore an adequate amount of supplies to the people in Gaza. I couldn’t go to the West Bank, but Robert Pastor, whom you interviewed, and also Hrair Balian, who’s in charge of the peace program for the Carter Center, went to Israel and asked the Israeli defense leaders, Defense Department leaders, if they would agree to that. And the answer came back the next day: they would only supply 15 percent, about one-sixth, of the supplies that the people in Gaza needed. So that meant that the ceasefire could not be renewed, and it precipitated rocket fire from Gaza and the attack on Gaza by the Israelis.
AMY GOODMAN: The prosecutor, the ICC prosecutor’s office, has said that the International Criminal Court at The Hague, the prosecutor for it, has launched a preliminary analysis to establish whether Israel committed war crimes in its offensive against Gaza. Documents also show the Palestinian National Authority has recognized the jurisdiction of the ICC, in a move designed to allow investigations of alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories. What are your thoughts about this?
JIMMY CARTER: I don’t believe that Israel has accepted the authority of the International Criminal Court, so it may be a moot effort. But I think that if the Palestinians can prevail in having an assessment made, then that might clear the air. But I don’t think there’s any chance of the International Criminal Court imposing any sort of penalties on Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Israeli leaders should be tried?
JIMMY CARTER: No, I don’t. I don’t think that would be fruitful. I think it would be a mistake to make a move of this kind. But I do hope that there will be a complete revelation of what has occurred, and that’s why I’ve been involved. That’s why I’ve written an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. And that’s why I’m talking to you. I think that out of this whole debacle or horrible catastrophe that’s occurred to the one-and-a-half million folks in Gaza, that a new momentum can be generated, particularly with a new president in the White House and a superb new envoy or negotiator, that will lead toward a peace agreement.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has yet to really talk about the Jewish settlements. The Jewish settlements are a major obstacle to a two-state solution. What is your assessment of the Obama administration and where they stand?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think that Obama has made an unprecedented move of an aggressive nature toward a peace agreement in the Middle East that escaped his predecessors in recent years. And that is, he started working on the Mideast peace problem the first day he was in office. And he’s appointed an envoy who is most superbly qualified as a mediator and knows the area quite well and also is fairly balanced between Israel and its neighbors, or neutral. And that’s what’s required. In fact, George Mitchell has already been condemned by some of the Jewish American organizations, because he is neutral or balanced, which has not been the case with the previous envoys. I was neutral or balanced back thirty years ago when I negotiated between Sadat and Begin and brought a peace agreement. And you have to look at both sides in order to have any sort of peace proposals that have a chance to be accepted by both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: But this issue of not mentioning the settlements, although what he has said has gone further than any president in the past.
JIMMY CARTER: Well, he’s only been in office a few days. And I think what happened was that he made a choice of an envoy. He made clear that this issue would be on the top of his agenda. He made calls to the leaders in the Middle East, I think the day he was inaugurated, as a matter of fact. And then, he’s appointed a person that can look at both sides. I think that’s a very good step forward.
He did condemn the suffering of the women and children and civilians in Gaza when the attack was underway. But I think he’s been waiting to let George Mitchell come back from the Mideast, prepare a trip report — that is, delineate what he found to be facts and what his recommendations might be — before Obama makes a public statement on those issues. I think that’s a wise political move for him to make.
AMY GOODMAN: What about what should happen in Gaza right now, President Carter, with the continued blockade?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think that the — what Hamas has always wanted, in my dealings with them and in their public statements, is just one thing, basically, and that is to open up supply routes in the closed border going into Gaza, through the enormous wall that surrounds Gaza, so that food and water and medicine and fuel can go in to the one-and-a-half million people. When Israel was in control of Gaza, before July — or before 2005, the average amount of fuel and so forth going in was 750 truckloads a day for one-and-a-half million people. But the Israelis have never been willing to go more than 15 percent or 25 percent of that, which means that, in effect, the Gazans either starve to death or they have to bring in food and so forth in the tunnels that go from Gaza out into Egyptian Sinai Desert region.
AMY GOODMAN: Former President Jimmy Carter has written a new book. It’s called We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land. When we come back from break, we’ll go back to the interview. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with former President Jimmy Carter. His latest book, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land.
AMY GOODMAN: President Carter, on the issue of Afghanistan — Barack Obama made his position known early on Iraq, saying he was opposed to the war with Iraq, even before the US invasion. But on the issue of Afghanistan, he is for a surge there.
On Democracy Now!, we just interviewed the attorney Cherif Bassiouni, who was the UN investigator, human rights investigator, in 2005. After he came out with his report very critical of the US military, saying it committed human rights abuses, he was fired as the investigator, under pressure from the United States. His assessment is that war is not the answer. What is your assessment, President Carter?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, that’s one area that I think I would disagree with Obama, as far as a surge that would lead to more intense bombing of Afghan villages and centers and the heavy dependence on military. I would like to see us reach out more to be accommodating and negotiate with all of the factions in Afghanistan.
I notice that Obama is also much cooler in his assessment of President Karzai than was George W. Bush and knows that he’s not been effective. He’s basically just governed right around the capital city, and his brother is well known to be one of the major drug dealers. So I think that to reach out to offer a hand of friendship or accommodation, not only to the warlords, but even to those radicals in the Taliban who are willing to negotiate, would be the best approach, than to rely exclusively on major military force.
And I don’t think there’s any doubt that General Petraeus and others that have made the assessment over there are telling Obama that this is a much more serious problem than Bush previously thought and also that a major surge, as was accomplished in Iraq, would only be effective if you could get the ones who are now opposed to US forces to change their position and be more accommodating to our presence, and with a future glimpse of when the United States occupation would expire.
AMY GOODMAN: So, are you opposed to a surge in Afghanistan, President Carter?
JIMMY CARTER: Well, if it’s a surge of a military nature only, then I would be opposed to it. But I’m not convinced that that’s what Obama wants, and I’m not convinced that that’s what General Petraeus and others are recommending. I’m not privy to their secret assessments that have been now shared between them and President Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, but just the fact, on that issue of the military, they’re clearly calling for tens of thousands of more soldiers to go into Afghanistan. Do you see a parallel with what happened in Iraq?
JIMMY CARTER: Some, but I think if the soldiers going in there are mainly to maintain order and to reach out to the people in an accommodating way, that’s one thing. If the soldiers are going in there to greatly escalate our military attacks, then I think that would be a mistake.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think cutting aid to Israel would be a way to achieve Middle East peace?
JIMMY CARTER: No, I don’t. That has been done in a couple of occasions. I did it once when I was in office, when Israel made an unwarranted invasion of Lebanon, in my opinion. And I notified the prime minister of Israel at the time that this violated US law, in that our sale of weapons to Israel was predicated on Israel using the weapons for defensive purposes only. That’s a present US law and was then. And so, they withdrew from Lebanon under that pressure.
When George H.W. Bush was in office, he witnessed the escalation of Israeli settlement building in a major settlement area between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. That’s only a distance of about six miles, by the way. And he actually withheld several hundred millions of US aid money to Israel, and then Prime Minister Shamir backed down and stopped construction on that particular settlement area under pressure from the United States and the withholding of actual funds. I think $400 million was finally withheld. And so — but as soon as George H.W. Bush went out of office, the settlement was recommenced, and it’s now been basically completed.
So, on two occasions, that was done in the past, but I don’t see that that’s a fruitful way to threaten Israel, with withholding of funds. We give Israel about $10 million dollars in aid each day, and that’s a lot of money. But, you know, I think we feel obligated to do it, and I wish that we would give an equivalent amount of aid to the suffering Palestinians.
AMY GOODMAN: Has President Obama sought out your advice on the Middle East, President Carter? You’ve met with him several times.
JIMMY CARTER: Not directly. When he heard that I was going to — I notified him that I was going to the Middle East in December, that I would be meeting with the Lebanese, who are going to have an election on the 7th of June, which the Carter Center will probably monitor. I also told him I was going to Syria, a nation with which we do not have diplomatic relations, and that I was going to meet with Hamas leaders and others.
He asked me to make a report to him after I came back, which I did. So, the night before the five presidents met in the highly publicized meeting in the Oval Office in the White House, I met with President Obama — President-elect Obama then — quite extensively. My wife was in the room taking notes, and David Axelrod was the only other person in the room taking notes. He never did comment. So just the four of us. And I told him about all the work of the Carter Center, and most of his questions, that took up more than half the time, was about the Middle East. It was at that time that I gave him the only copy of my new book that I had, which I had just read over to make sure it didn’t have any mistakes in it.
AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas, who questioned you when you were president, now is questioning the tenth president that she has covered as the dean of the White House press corps, President Obama, asked President Obama, “Do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?” He evaded that question.
JIMMY CARTER: That’s interesting. Helen Thomas is one of the best reporters that ever served in the White House. She used to give me some tough questions, which I never avoided, by the way, but I noticed that later, in George W. Bush’s term, he pretty well excluded Helen Thomas from the approved interrogators of him. But I think she has some very appropriate questions.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, she was clearly alluding to Israel. Do you think the Middle East should be a nuclear-free zone?
JIMMY CARTER: I would like to see it nuclear-free. There’s no doubt that Israel does have a large nuclear arsenal. This has been known ever since before I became president, and even Israeli leaders have said publicly that this is true.
AMY GOODMAN: President Carter, thank you very much for joining us.
JIMMY CARTER: I’ve enjoyed talking to you. Thanks very much. Bye-bye.
AMY GOODMAN: Former President Jimmy Carter. His latest book is called We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land.