It's not every day you get to chat with a former President of the United States. And since President Jimmy Carter will be in town on Friday, signing copies of his book We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, I welcomed the opportunity to speak with him, even though it was only for a blurb in this week's Night and Day section.
Since the Night and Day items are 200 words long at best, I had a lot left over from my phoner with the former Prez, which I've transcribed below. Keep in mind the interview was done a couple of weeks back, and the situation in Gaza and the Middle East remains fluid, and as always, complex. Israel just had elections this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on his way out, and though the Israelis have ended their military action in Gaza, sporadic hostilities continue. The possibility of a truce is up in the air. And the title of Carter's book, at this point, seems better put as a question than a statement of fact.
New Times: I think a lot of people consider the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be intractable. How would you assure them it's not?
President Carter: Everyone thought it was even more intractable when I became President 30 years ago, because there had been four major wars in the previous 25 years with Egypt in the leadership of all of those attacks on Israel. But I reached out to [then Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat, I reached out to [then Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin, and so forth, and finally worked out a peace agreement between the two, almost exactly 30 years ago - not a word of which has ever been violated. So I know that sometimes what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle can be overcome.
Secondly, I'm thoroughly familiar with the region. I've been over there twice this past year. I've met with all the leaders, the President of Israel, the peace groups in Israel and some of the cabinet members, and the leaders in Egypt and Syria and so forth. And Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Hamas and Fatah. And I report in the book what I have discovered. The most surprising factor is the cooperative attitude that Hamas expressed...That they would accept any agreement negotiated between Palestine and Israel, provided it was submitted to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza in a referendum and approved by the citizens involved. That's a major step forward.
The other step forward by Hamas that was surprising to me too, was their willingness to have a ceasefire that just applied to Gaza. Because before that they had always insisted that a ceasefire had to be Gaza and the West Bank both, which Israel wouldn't accept. The other thing that gives me hope now is the new President that we've got. During the campaign [Barack Obama] promised...that he would start working on the Mideast the first day that he was in office, which he has done. And he also has appointed a superb and balanced and neutral negotiator [as special envoy to the Middle East], which is a rare thing in our country, and that is [former U.S. Senator] George Mitchell. These are factors that point to my title's accuracy.
NT: Those who defend Israel in this latest outbreak of violence talk about some 5,000 missiles of one kind or another fired from Gaza into Israel over the last five years, and that was the reason for Israel's 22 day incursion into Gaza.
President Carter: Let me give you an actual statistic that's from the major human rights organizations...Take the one year before when the ceasefire went into effect, which would be from July 2007 to June 2008. In all of that time, there was one Israeli killed. A total of one. And there was an average of 49 Palestinians killed every month. Which is a total of almost 600. That was the difference.
Also, when the ceasefire went into effect, on the 19th of June, which I helped to orchestrate, it was negotiated by the Egyptians. Hamas complied almost totally. In the next five months, they reduced the rocket fire, not completely, but 99 percent. Three of the months there was only one rocket fired or mortar fired and didn't do any damage. Israel on the other hand agreed that they would open up this supply route, so that the one and a half million people in Gaza could get food and water and medicine and fuel. Israel did not comply with that agreement. The maximum amount that they ever permitted to come in was 25 percent of what was normal when Israel controlled Gaza. So that's what broke down the ceasefire, the first one.
Hamas was still complying until November 4, when Israel attacked Gaza, killed six Palestinians, and then at that point they started firing their rockets again. I went over there a second time. I think the 10th of December I was there. I met with the Hamas leaders in Damascus, Syria. And they said they would like to have the ceasefire continued, provided that Israel would let food and water come in, which the Palestinians had to have. I couldn't go to Israel, but two of my representatives did, ones that travel with me all the time. They went to Israel, met with leaders and the defense department and put that proposal to them. The next day, the response was, `We will only supply 15 percent of the necessary food and water.' That was why the ceasefire wasn't resumed.
NT: What explains Israel's posture towards Gaza then, in your opinion?
President Carter: I think this was an agreement between Israel and the United States, under the Bush Administration that this is the best way to destroy Hamas once and for all. We'll hurt Gaza so bad, that the people in Gaza will turn against Hamas. Obviously, that's a ridiculous proposal to start with. And it certainly hasn't materialized. Indications are that Hamas is much more popular now because they have withstood the attack.
NT: So how does the peace process move forward?
President Carter: The first step has got to be reconciliation and a unity government formed between [rival Palestinian groups] Hamas and Fatah. That was available in 2006, but neither the United States nor Israel were willing to have a government with Hamas in it. Hamas won the election fair and square. I was over there. The Carter Center was, and people from Europe and everybody else, and they will certify what I just said to be true.
Hamas won 43 percent of the popular vote, and they won a majority of the members of the parliament. But after that, the United States says they can't form the unity government, and Israel arrested the successful candidates, who were supposed to be forming the parliament, who lived in the West Bank. Most of them are still in prison. So they can't form a government because the elected representatives are in Israeli prisons...
NT: You've said in the book that now is the right time for a peace agreement. Why?
President Carter: For one reason, the leaders of Israel...the defense minister and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, they are both quoted in my book that a one state solution, which is the direction Israel's moving [in], is a catastrophe for Israel and is unacceptable. That means one nation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with Palestinians and Israelis in the same nation. That would be unacceptable because you already have in that area a minority of Jews, and you'll soon have a majority of Palestinians -- of Arabs, some of whom are Christians, some of whom are Muslims. The only alternative then for Israel would be to drive the Palestinians out by force, which would be almost impossible because they'd have to go to Lebanon, or Jordan, or Egypt, and none of those countries want them. And they don't want to leave anyway.
The second way would be to have one nation with Jews being permitted to vote, and Arabs not being permitted to vote. And that would be apartheid by definition and you wouldn't want that. And the third way would be to have a majority of the voters be Arabs. So you wouldn't have any more Jewish state. So the two state solution is the only one. And that's what I espouse and that's what I explain in the book.
NT: How can the U.S. best deal with the threat Iran poses to the region?
President Carter: Iran is strengthened recently by two things, one is our invasion of Iraq, which everyone agrees has made Iran much more important than it ever would have been otherwise. And secondly, Iran is strengthened by a lack of progress in meeting the basic rights of the Palestinians. So Iran has come out as the sort of self-anointed champion of the downtrodden Palestinians, which they don't deserve to be. So what can you do to weaken Iran, comparatively speaking? Get out of Iraq and deal with the Palestinian issue, and that would greatly reduce any influence Iran now has in the region.
NT: President Obama wants an increased presence in Afghanistan. Do you support that?
President Carter: Yes, I do. I trust [Commander of U.S. Central Command] General David Petraeus' analysis of it. He's been the head of both Iraq and Afghanistan...I was not against George Bush's invasion of Afghanistan, which I thought was necessary after the [9/11] attack on America. But it was a horrible mistake based on lies when we left Afghanistan in effect and devoted almost all of our full attention to Iraq.
NT: Off the subject, being that you're from the South, what were your feelings upon seeing our first black president inaugurated?
President Carter: I grew up in a community where we didn't have any white neighbors. I grew up with only black playmates, and people I worked in the field with, went fishing with and that sort of thing. I saw the ravages of racial discrimination then, and that's one of the reasons both as a Governor of Georgia and as President, I made human rights a top priority. To see Obama come forward on his own merits, his brilliance, his eloquence and his sound judgment to maneuver through a successful campaign has been quite gratifying to me, and I might add, to all the members of my family.
NT: Have you given him any advice since he's been in office?
President Carter: I met with him quite extensively the night before the five presidents met in the White House, and the only other ones present were his main political adviser, and my wife, who took notes. I talked to him about the work that my wife and I had done since we left the White House, and the main thing he wanted to talk about was the Middle East. And so we spent over half the time in the evening talking about the Middle East. And I gave him the first copy of my book.
NT: When you were President, I was in junior high and your Presidency made a large impression on me, particularly your daughter Amy, with whom I identified, because she was close to my age. How is she doing these days?
President Carter: Just great. She was nine when we moved into the White House. She's a mother now. Married happily. She did her graduate work in art history. She's an artist. She was standing right in front of the platform when Obama took his oath of office. And she worked full time in Obama's campaign in DeKalb County, Georgia. If you look up the record, I think you'll find that Obama got a bigger majority of victory in DeKalb County, Georgia than maybe any other county in the whole nation. So she's getting along just fine. That was one of the things Obama wanted to talk to me and Rosalynn about, and his wife particularly...They wanted to know how little girls get along in the White House. So we gave them a lot of advice on that.
NT: So how do children get along in the White House?
President Carter: Beautifully, if they can stand the publicity...Amy would bring her classmates home with her from school. She went to public school, and her classmates were quite poor. But she would bring them to the White House, and the first family can order any movies we want. There's a nice little theater there that seats I think 35 people. So Amy would get enough movies on Friday nights to have movies all night long. They would eat popcorn and hot dogs and drink Cokes. Then at daybreak they would go to bed and sleep till noon. And in good weather they would go out and have a swimming party in the Gerald Ford swimming pool. And if the weather was bad in the wintertime, they would go down in the basement and they could bowl on Harry Truman's bowling alley. So as you can see, they can have a good time even during the work week. And then on the weekend, she took her classmates quite often, some of them, up to Camp David. So a little child can have a wonderful time in the White House.