Building peace

<strong>Palestine: peace not apartheid</strong>

Jimmy Carter <em>Simon & Schuster, 320pp, £17.99</

Who would have guessed that Jimmy Carter - architect of the peace between Egypt and Israel, Nobel prize-winner and housebuilder for the poor - has been a Jew-hater all along? Some of the most vocal elements of the powerful pro- Israel lobby in America are at a loss to conjure up any other explanation for why the former US president has made such strident criticisms of the Jewish state in his surprise bestseller, Palestine: peace not apartheid. The alternative is that what he says is true.

Carter's critics were infuriated before they even got beyond the cover - over the use in the title of the taboo "apartheid", with its implications of racism. But the virulent backlash against him has largely been provoked by his refusal to accept the mantra that plucky little Israel is forced to do terrible things to fend off the hordes of enemies at the gates.

Americans who rely on the New York Times or CNN for explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are generally presented with reporting in which responsibility for the conflict, and the failure to achieve peace, is either equally apportioned or, more often, blamed on the Arabs. Carter is having none of it. He doesn't excuse the Palestinians from responsibility, but says that Israel shoulders most of the blame because of its failure to grasp opportunities for an enduring peace.

Carter accuses Israeli leaders of negotiating in bad faith, of failing to live up to commitments made to him and other American presidents, and of being more interested in the pursuit of land than an end to conflict. He says squarely that, during the presidency of George Bush senior, "Israel put confiscation of Palestinian land ahead of peace". It is still true today. Nor does he hold back in his use of language. Jewish settlements are "colonies", the vast West Bank barrier is an "imprisonment wall", and what remains of Palestine is subjected to "apartheid".

The former president says that, as far back as 1977, he concluded that treatment of "non-Jews in the occupied territories as a substratum of society is contrary to the principles of morality and justice on which democracies are founded".

It is not anti-Semitism that is driving Carter, but a moral certainty rooted in his religion. In 1973, he told the fiercely secular Israeli leader Golda Meir that the Hebrew scriptures say Israel was punished whenever its leaders turned away from devout worship of God. So, he asked, was a secular government such a good idea?

Carter was in the room when it mattered and his recollections offer real insights. He says that, while the peace between Israel and Egypt has held, "other equally important provisions of our agreement have not been honoured since I left office". Within weeks of putting his signature to the treaty, the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin betrayed a commitment to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

"For Menachem Begin, the peace treaty with Egypt was the significant act for Israel, while solemn promises regarding the West Bank and Palestinians would be finessed or deliberately violated," Carter writes. "We all knew that Israel must have a comprehensive and lasting peace, and this dream could have been realised if Israel had complied with the Camp David accords and refrained from colonising the West Bank, with Arabs accepting Israel within its legal borders."

The view that Israel's colonial ambitions stood in the way of peace is not widely heard in America, and the backlash against it has been furious. Prominent pro-Israel activists such as Alan Dershowitz have accused Carter of anti-Semitism, lying about details of the negotiations he led, and a string of factual errors that turn out not to be errors at all.

The former US president was denounced in full-page adverts in the New York Times. Brandeis University, an institution with strong Jewish ties, said it would only let the former US president speak on the campus if Dershowitz appeared alongside him. Carter refused and the university backed down.

All that the fury seems to have done is keep Palestine: peace not apartheid on the bestseller lists and widen its audience. What Carter understands is that it is pro-Israel to point out that its interests are not best served by leaders who make claims to want peace while fabricating reasons not to negotiate as a cover for creeping colonisation and ever-greater subjugation.

As for apartheid, Carter points out that the book's title refers to Palestine, not to Israel. He means not that Israel is an apartheid state, but that it is entrenching an apartheid system in the occupied territories. And he sees the vast West Bank barrier - a wall when it runs through Jerusalem - as the latest tool in imposing what looks increasingly like the old South African bantustan homelands.

"Utilising their political and military dominance, they [Israeli leaders] are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories," he writes.

Perhaps Carter's book will finally open up the debate that needs to be had in the US about Israel. If for nothing else, it is worth reading for an insight into what Americans rarely hear.

Chris McGreal is a former Israel correspondent for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour