The US has withdrawn from tackling the Middle East's most intractable problem, says the former President
Prostect / UK
Aug 13, 2015 - “At this moment, there is zero chance of the two-state solution,” said Jimmy Carter, giving his bleakest pronouncement yet on the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock to which he devoted much effort while President of the United States, and even more time since then.
“These are the worst prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians for years,” he said, adding that he didn’t think that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, “has any intention” of making progress towards the goal, the thrust of international efforts for decades, of the creation of a separate state for the Palestinians alongside Israel. After John Kerry’s efforts as Secretary of State to broker a deal, which collapsed in the spring last year, the “US has withdrawn” from the problem, he reckoned.
Carter, US President from 1977 to 1981, spoke to Prospect on the launch of his new book (his 29th), A Full Life: Reflections at 90, and just shortly before the operation that revealed he had cancer, and that it had spread. He is arguably the best recent case of a president who gained in stature after he left office, and this crisp survey of the arc of his life and passions shows why. It is a reminder of the strength of the moral views of someone described as “more of a missionary than a legislator”; his lack of fear in voicing them on the global stage, and his enduring lack of interest in political compromise.
His controversial and uncomfortable presidency, after narrowly defeating Gerald Ford, was dogged by clashes with the Democrat-controlled Congress. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, incredulous that the born-again Christian from Georgia stopped serving alcohol at the White House, and furious at how Carter, the former Governor of Georgia, put Georgians in key posts, became an insurmountable obstacle when the President refused on principle to reward potential supporters on Capitol Hill with bills containing “pork” (favours for local projects). That blocked many of his idealistic projects on energy, the environment and water, leaving the Egypt-Israel peace accords struck at Camp David as one of the landmarks of his time in office.
But after losing to Ronald Reagan in a landslide (Iran’s revolutionary government adding to the humiliation by releasing the US embassy hostages hours after Carter left office), he founded the Carter Centre, which has sought to promote peace and health, and has retained for him a role in peace negotiations in the world’s conflicts. To those committed to human rights, this high purity has made him a hero (for which the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize was fit recognition); to those immersed in the realities of government, even his admirers, it made him a natural one-term president; to those in recent Israeli governments, it has put him beyond the pale.
Of his books, this is among the most personal. As often happens in autobiographies from those who have achieved high office, the freshest parts are the earliest. His most absorbing details are on how to become a peanut farmer, the business he picked up from his father after he left the navy. He is eloquent on learning to carve an irregular furrow through an unbroken field with two mules at the age of 12; on how he made furniture for the family (his father’s estate, once shared among siblings, did not leave him with much); and how to pick the right peanuts (one field of a new variety called Virginia Bunch 67 got him through the 1954 drought). At other points, though, his survey of “a full life” leads to a jarringly concise shorthand, as in his remark that “Rosalynn and I had three sons while I was in the navy… I wanted to try again for a girl, and we had an off-and-on argument for the next 14 years, which I finally won. Amy was born late in 1967.”
He also delivers his verdict on the world’s worst conflicts under the unmatchably laconic chapter headings of “Issues Mostly Resolved” and “Problems Still Pending”; the second category includes, no surprise, extended reference to the Middle East. In his 2006 book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, Carter argued that Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land was one of the leading obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Both the argument and the comparison with South Africa—even though, as he disingenuously insists, he did not refer to Israel in the title—won him few friends in Israel. When he visited Israel and the West Bank at the end of April this year, he says he did not bother to contact Netanyahu for a meeting, on the grounds that “it would be a waste of time to ask,” expecting that the request would be rebuffed as were previous ones. Israel’s Prime Minister “does not now and has never sincerely believed in a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.”
“The Netanyahu government decided early on to adopt a one-state solution,” he said—meaning that Israel would retain control of the West Bank—“but without giving them [the Palestinians] equal rights.” Some Palestinians have now begun to demand that Israel give them the vote within that “single state,” one of several tactics they are employing as more come to share Carter’s conclusion that the “two-state solution,” still the professed international goal, is not going to happen. “They will never get equal rights [to Israeli Jews, within that single state],” he said, but adding that he would like a drive to give them “more equal rights.”
Asked whether without a deal Israel was heading for apartheid, he said, “I am reluctant to use that word in a news article” but that there was real force to the argument because of the rising Arab population in the land that Israel controls. Either “Palestinians will have a majority in government”—something the Jewish state would not accept, he suggested, “or you deprive them of equal rights.”
Nor would Israel’s government echo his support for the recent deal with Iran to curb its nuclear programme, which he described as “superb,” and “the best we can do and the only alternative to a conflict with Iran.” He has “complete confidence” in John Kerry, Secretary of State, he said, saying that he would reimpose sanctions if Iran breached the deal. But Obama now has to navigate the “big obstacle” of Congress to go ahead with the deal, although Carter said it was “my belief that Democrats would support it.”
He hopes that the US’s “relations with Iran can improve.” He said he was not at this point worried about nuclear proliferation, but if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapons capability, then Saudi Arabia might well be moved to do so too. Israel, he said, had “at least 150 to 200” nuclear weapons, repeating “at least.” Israel, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has always refused to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons, but the universal assumption that it does has been a running sore in attempts to persuade the rest of the region not to acquire them. Carter first disclosed this figure of 150 in May 2008, in answer to a direct question I asked him at an event at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, and it remains the only public statement of the size of the arsenal (and therefore public acknowledgement of its existence) by a senior statesman who is unequivocally in a position to know.
The US’s “diminishing influence” is “inexorable and steady,” he said. In the lifetimes of today’s adults “the US will remain the preeminent military power.” But “China and Russia and others will increase their influence in the United Nations and the world economy,” he said, and while this has not diminished his idealism, it has led him to recognise the limits on what the US can do. He had, for instance, met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in April, as part of a delegation of the world’s elder statesmen concerned about the Ukraine crisis, and has a more nuanced approach than the Obama administration. While keen that the US take visible steps to deter Russia from destabilising more of Ukraine, or looking to the Baltics, he has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “inevitable.” That is more tempered than the hot and cold swings of his presidency, where he both engaged in the second round of the SALT arms control talks, but then organised the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the 1979 Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. It is also some way from Obama’s sharp-edged criticism of Moscow.
Carter is now eloquent on the limits on US power which have so shaped Obama’s presidency. The 2003 Iraq invasion “was a clear mistake—a horrible mistake,” he said. “It has destroyed Iraq as a nation and opened up Iranian influence.” The US’s presence in Afghanistan, even if less controversial at its start, has been running for 13 years. US presidents no longer set out to “tell the truth and keep the peace,” he said. And its politics are deteriorating. “The massive quantities of dollars pouring into the political process have lost the essence of what made American democracy admirable.” “You need to raise $200-$300m” to run for Governor, Senator, never mind President, he said, and then the funders want their return on that afterwards. “When I ran we didn’t raise a nickel from outside.” The 2010 and 2014 rulings of the Supreme Court opening the gates to campaign donations from individual and corporate donors are “one of its biggest mistakes,” he said.
Asked about the Hispanic influence on the US, he said “I am disappointed by the small percentage of Hispanics who go to the polls and vote.” The demographic shift “bodes well for the Democrats ultimately,” he said, given that most Hispanics currently vote Democrat (almost three quarters did so at the last election), although he added drily that the party had not decisively seen the benefit yet.
About Obama he is more forthright. “There are 22 people in my family and they all voted for Obama over Hillary [Clinton]” in 2008, he said. “In some ways he has been successful,” he says; “I particularly approve” of his action to restore relations between the US and Cuba—which Carter had also tried when President. But apart from that, the Iran deal, and healthcare “I don’t think he has had notably historic successes.” This might seem harsh, in that even Carter’s warmest fans have had to pick carefully among the storms of his presidency to find clear wins.
His praise is warmer, though, than for Hillary. He has said on US television that she is not “proven” as a politician, and has complimented John Kerry as Secretary of State for making efforts for Middle East peace that she, as Kerry’s predecessor, neglected to do. “She’s still got to get the nomination,” he points out, adding uncontroversially that he expects that she will indeed be the Democrat contender for the White House. If she is, however, he and his family will vote for her, he adds. On that point, at least, he appears prepared to compromise, for the sake of his lifelong loyalty to the Democratic cause.