A rebuttal to the Carter Center Board of Councilors resignation letter

Fourteen members of the Carter Center Board of Councilors resigned on 11 January to express their dismay over President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. Their criticisms are petty and inaccurate and say much more about them than about President Carter. They fail to grapple in the letter with Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians and with President Carter’s call for substantive peacemaking. My comments about their concerns are provided below along with pertinent information in boxes regarding other erroneous or misleading criticism leveled at President Carter. (The following text of the resignation letter was posted on the website of CAMERA, an organization which has been highly critical of President Carter’s book and has orchestrated protests against publisher Simon & Schuster.)
Dear fellow member of the Carter Center Board of Councilors,

This has been a difficult time for us. As members of the Board of Councilors of the Carter Center we have endeavored to promote the efforts of the Carter Center in our community. However, the recent book authored by President Carter “Palestine; Peace not Apartheid” [SIC] and his comments in the press made while promoting the book have given us pause in our efforts. We are deeply troubled by the President’s comments and writings and are submitting the following letter of resignation to the Carter Center. We wanted to inform you, our fellow Board members, of our actions and encourage you to contact us if you have any questions regarding our resignation.

MICHAEL F. BROWN: Only 14 members of a Board of Councilors numbering over 200 actually resigned in this letter. Clearly, enormous support for President Carter’s efforts still exists. Several of those resigning had strong connections to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), another organization that has been highly critical of President Carter’s book and has condemned thoughtful peace activists for being anti-Israel when, in fact, they simply object to Israeli policy. According to Shelley Rose, Interim Director of the ADL’s Atlanta Regional Office, “Among the 14 individuals who have resigned are several former and current members of the ADL Southeast Region board of trustees. We are gratified that the work of ADL in monitoring extremist web sites has played a part in exposing the negative impact Carter’s words have had.”

Dear President Carter,

As members of the Board of Councilors each one of us has been proud to be associated with the Carter Center in its noble struggle to repair the world. However, in light of the publication of your latest book Palestine; Peace Not Apartheid [sic] and your subsequent comments made in promoting the book, we can no longer in good conscience continue to serve the Center as members of the Board of Councilors.

In its work in conflict resolution the Carter Center has always played the useful and constructive role of honest broker and mediator between warring parties. In your book, which portrays the conflict between Israel and her neighbors as a purely one-sided affair with Israel holding all of the responsibility for resolving the conflict, you have clearly abandoned your historic role of broker in favor of becoming an advocate for one side.

MB: President Carter has certainly taken the unusual step of highlighting the injustice suffered by Palestinians. After all, he concludes the book by stating, “It will be a tragedy — for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the world — if peace is rejected and a system of oppression, apartheid, and sustained violence is permitted to prevail.” (p. 216) Yet elsewhere he has clearly specified that Palestinians have responsibilities. In their rush to criticize Carter, burn bridges, and seize 15 minutes of fame — at the expense of advancing substantive Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking and discussion with the former president — the resigning members of the Board of Councilors have ignored vital language from Carter. The media have largely indulged the Board members in this misrepresentation.

For example, Carter notes “two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace in the Middle East.” (p. 205) His first comment involves obstacles thrown up by “some Israelis” while the second comment addresses those erected by some Palestinians. He states, “Some Palestinians react by honoring suicide bombers as martyrs to be rewarded in heaven and consider the killing of Israelis as victories.” (p. 206) Carter clearly disapproves of such bombings.

He goes on to emphasize that the “security of Israel must be guaranteed. The Arabs must acknowledge openly and specifically that Israel is a reality and has a right to exist in peace, behind secure and recognized borders, and with a firm Arab pledge to terminate any further acts of violence against the legally constituted nation of Israel.” (p. 207)

As noted, Carter has clearly emphasized responsibilities of both Israelis and Palestinians. Those resigning have ignored counter-examples that would undercut their case. Instead, they have reacted simplistically and negatively to Carter’s important effort to highlight and spell out both Israeli injustices and responsibilities. It is not Carter’s fault that he has so much educational work to do to balance the playing field. Many Americans have never been exposed to his arguments about what is really transpiring in the occupied Palestinian territories. Rather than acknowledge the importance of this educational work, a few Board members chose to try to undermine Carter and his message. And rather than engage him in an important conversation, they have lashed out as strongly as they could. Such a conversation, however, is desperately needed between Carter and the exiting members of the Board of Councilors. An important conversation (speech followed by questions and answers) took place at Brandeis University on 23 January and a similar one should take place between Carter and former supporters. President Carter, a gracious individual, would presumably welcome a conversation that would include the concerns of former Board members as well as sober discussion and analysis of the harshness of Israel’s domination of the Palestinian people. Indeed, Carter would be well advised to extend invitations to all those resigning to join him on his next trip to the occupied West Bank. In exchange, he would attend whatever delegation his former supporters had in mind.

The facts in dealing with the conflict are these: There are two national narratives contesting one piece of land. The Israelis, through deed and public comment, have consistently spoken of a desire to live in peace and make territorial compromise to achieve this status. The Palestinian side has consistently resorted to acts of terror as a national expression and elected parties endorsing the use of terror, the rejection of territorial compromise and of Israel’s right to exist. Palestinian leaders have had chances since 1947 to have their own state, including during your own presidency when they snubbed your efforts.

MB: One doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Carter does not have the absolute truth, but they do?

They criticize Carter for his viewpoint, but then set themselves up as the dispensers of the true facts of the conflict. They are entitled to their opinions, but hew to their own questionable representation of the history of the conflict. Namely, they make Israelis out to be peacemakers and Palestinians to be terrorists. This is both absurd and racist. It is grossly unfair to attribute terrorism to the “Palestinian side” as if all Palestinians have been engaged in reprehensible suicide bombings. This also conveniently overlooks the terrorism of some Israelis, including some who rose to the pinnacle of political power in Israel. Both Israelis and Palestinians have had political leaders who engaged in despicable acts directed at civilians. The letter writers whitewash history in pretending that it is just Palestinians engaging in such acts.

President Carter has made clear that it was Prime Minister Begin who, to borrow a term from the letter writers, “snubbed” him following Camp David by failing to stop Israeli settlement activity. In fact, Carter stated in the book, “Perhaps the most serious omission of the Camp David talks was the failure to clarify in writing Begin’s verbal promise concerning the settlement freeze during subsequent peace talks.” (p. 50) Carter also noted, “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.” (p. 52)

Carter was there. One can be certain he is upset to this day that Begin failed to keep his word. This comes through clearly in Carter’s final words of Chapter 3: “We all knew that Israel must have a comprehensive and lasting peace, and this dream could have been realized if Israel had complied with the Camp David Accords and refrained from colonizing the West Bank, with Arabs accepting Israel within its legal borders.” This is a vital insight if one hopes to understand what has gone wrong in the Middle East in the nearly 30 years since Carter, Sadat, and Begin met at Camp David. Carter clearly views ongoing Israeli settlement activity as a major impediment to peace and yet rather than discuss this the media have focused on resignations of minor figures and minor semantics that are insignificant in comparison to the large points being made by the former president.

Your book has confused opinion with fact, subjectivity with objectivity and force for change with partisan advocacy. Furthermore the comments you have made the past few weeks insinuating that there is a monolith of Jewish power in America are most disturbing and must be addressed by us. In our great country where freedom of expression is basic bedrock you have suddenly proclaimed that Americans cannot express their opinion on matters in the Middle East for fear of retribution from the “Jewish Lobby” In condemning the Jews of America you also condemn Christians and others for their support of Israel. Is any interest group to be penalized for participating in the free and open political process that is America? Your book and recent comments suggest you seem to think so.

MB: In a Carter Center press release issued on 15 December 2006 entitled “A letter to Jewish citizens of America,” Carter writes of his meeting with leaders of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix: “I made it clear that I have never claimed that American Jews control the news media, but reiterated that the overwhelming bias for Israel comes from among Christians like me who have been taught since childhood to honor and protect God’s chosen people from among whom came our own savior, Jesus Christ. An additional factor, especially in the political arena, is the powerful influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is exercising its legitimate goal of explaining the current policies of Israel’s government and arousing maximum support in our country. There are no significant countervailing voices.”

Tim Russert of Meet the Press employed the term “Jewish lobby” while physically indicating quote marks with his hands and, in turn, Carter used his language, though noting he did not use such language in his book. The term was obviously brought into play as a somewhat discomfiting one to Russert, and Carter immediately noted it was not one he employed in his book. Even so, Carter would have been better advised to challenge the framing language and stick to talking about the “pro-Israel right or wrong lobby.”

The vitriolic rhetoric employed against Carter in recent weeks does make it less likely that Americans will speak out on this issue. This is not the work of a “Jewish Lobby” because the Jewish community is obviously not monolithic. Some Jews in the United States, in fact, think Carter’s work was enormously important in moving debate and the prospects for peace forward. Others obviously do not.

Much of the rhetoric directed at Carter is, however, cause for deep consternation, particularly because editorial boards are not coming to Carter’s defense, even to say that while they might disagree with the president on Israel/Palestine, they vehemently disagree with the language of critics labeling him a “fathead” (Glenn Beck of CNN), “bigoted” (Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League), and a “Jew hater” (Martin Peretz of The New Republic). Carter’s critics seem to have quite forgotten that this is the same man who through enormous personal effort helped broker Israeli-Egyptian peace.

In the past you would inject yourself into this world to moderate between the two sides in the pursuit of peace and as a result you earned our admiration and support. Now you repeatedly make false claims. You wrote that UN Security Council Resolution 242 says that “Israel must withdraw from territories” (p. 38), but you know the word “must” in fact is not in the resolution. You said that since Mahmoud Abbas has been in office there have been no peace discussions. That is wrong. You wrote that Yassir Arafat told you in 1990 that, “The PLO has never advocated the annihilation of Israel” (p. 62). Given that their Charter, which explicitly calls for Israel’s destruction, was not revised until the late 1990s, how could you even write such a claim as if it were credible?

MB: For years proponents of an expansionist Israel have insisted that people such as Carter be sure not to add a definite article before “territories occupied” in discussing UNSC Resolution 242 and its call for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Carter avoids doing so, but now has apparently committed a new “error” merely for trying to summarize the “basic premise” of UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. Any common sense reading of UNSC Resolution 242 leads one to note that the resolution emphasizes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security” and “the application of both the following principles:
Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force…”
Carter never said this is precisely what the resolution says. He said this is the “basic premise.” The critics are making much ado about nothing. At the end of the day, any Israeli “acquisition of territory by war” is still inadmissible. This is partly reinforced by UNSC Resolution 465 with its determination that:
“All measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Most importantly, the words of the Board members are the words of people who see no need in the letter to note that Israel’s insistence on maintaining settlements in parts of the occupied territories is at the heart of the ongoing conflict. Battling over UNSC Resolution 242 is not the action of people serious about peacemaking, but the action of people providing comfort to expansionists. It is extraordinarily unhelpful save to encourage those supportive of an ongoing Israeli land grab in Palestinian territory. International law is quite clear and Israel is violating it. Carter’s critics have been reduced to picking at words meant only to be a summary of the resolution. Most damaging to their credibility is that they said nothing in their letter about the damaging effects of settlement activity on the prospects for peace. In probably the most important letter of their lives, they had the opportunity to note steps Israel should take to advance peace. Yet they entirely failed to do so. Israel, in their view, apparently is not at all to be faulted. Blame, it seems, rests solely with the Palestinians — and now with President Carter as well.

Carter was certainly right that there have been no peace discussions since Mahmoud Abbas has been in office. There have been the most insubstantial of discussions about side issues, but no discussion of the core issues of peace. The Board members are again grasping at straws in a frantic effort to undermine Carter.

As for the quote from Arafat on the PLO never advocating the annihilation of Israel, it should be emphasized that Carter never said one way or the other whether the statement was accurate. He was merely repeating what Arafat claimed in 1990. Yes, it would have been helpful to readers to cite what the Charter in fact stated, but it scarcely constitutes grounds for a group resignation. In fact, had the group of 14 approached Carter with a concern over this passage he almost certainly would have expressed a willingness to address it and could have allayed unfounded fears about his knowledge of the Charter. (In a similar vein, it would be well worthwhile for those supporters of Palestinian rights who think Carter understated discrimination within Israel against Palestinians to seek a meeting with the former president and raise these well-grounded concerns. They have a powerful case to make (one that Carter hinted at during his Brandeis University talk) and at the same time can express appreciation for Carter’s effort to expose the injustice of the Israeli occupation.)

You denied on Denver radio on December 12 that Palestinian Prime Minister Haniyah said he would never accept or negotiate with Israel. However the BBC monitoring service reported just the opposite. In fact Haniyah said: “We will never recognize the usurper Zionist government and will continue our jihadist movement until Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are liberated. [sic] When presented with this fact you said, “No he didn’t say that, no he did not do that, I did not hear that.” These are not points of opinion, these are points of fact.

MB: The letter is sloppily written here as Haniyeh’s quote is never concluded. Carter clearly concludes his quotation with some uncertainty as he has just been presented with new information. Already by the end of the sentence he is modifying what he said at the start. Additionally, Carter is back on the record regarding Haniyeh in an 18 January 2007 Washington Post op-ed. “… Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has expressed support for talks between President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and pledged to end Hamas’s rejectionist position if a negotiated agreement is approved by the Palestinian people.” There are, in fact, different ways to read Haniyeh as he has stated different things at different times. Carter believes that Haniyeh will accommodate the wishes of the Palestinian people regarding Israel if a fair agreement is reached. Specific Haniyeh quotations are points of fact, but Carter’s larger point remains quite valid: Haniyeh has shown a willingness to accept a negotiated agreement with Israel.

Indeed, in a 19 January interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Carter stated, “Well, he’s said all kinds of things, Wolf, in addition to that [rejectionist position]. He’s also said that he would welcome peace talks between the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and the prime minister of Israel. And that if they evolved a satisfactory peace agreement and submitted it to the Palestinian people in a referendum and it was approved, that they would accept that as a basis for the future. So, you can selectively quote anything you want to.”

And finally, it is a disturbing statement to write: “that it is imperative, that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel.” In this sentence you clearly suggest that you are condoning violence against Israelis until they do certain things (p.213). Your use of the word “Apartheid,” regardless of your disclaimers, has already energized white supremacist groups who thrive on asserting Jewish control of government and foreign policy, an insinuation you made in your OPED to the LA Times on December 8, 2006: “For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts.” According to Web site monitoring by the Anti-Defamation League, U.S. white supremacists have enthusiastically embraced your suggestion that the Israel lobby stifles debate in this country, saying it confirms Jewish control of government and foreign policy as well as and [sic] the inherently “evil” nature of Jews. If you doubt the support you are giving and receiving, please refer to: [http://www.adl.org]

From there you can get to the postings of four different White Supremacist organizations that both support and make use of the contents of your book and what you have said in public.

MB: To claim that President Carter clearly is suggesting that he condones violence against Israelis is patently false and shows the extraordinary lengths the letter writers have been willing to go in their effort to discredit the former president. President Carter states quite clearly in the book on p. 15 that he views attacks against Israeli civilians as “morally reprehensible.” Nevertheless, Carter was willing to admit at Brandeis University that the sentence on p. 213 was poorly constructed. Carter bent over backwards to allay the absurd fear that he condones terrorism against Israelis when he said that the sentence “was worded in a completely improper and stupid way.” He added, “I have written my publisher to change that sentence immediately. I apologize to you personally, to everyone here.” Significantly, Carter did not back away from his concerns about Israeli persecution of the Palestinians. He merely admitted that one sentence could have been phrased better — and would have been well within his rights to express astonishment that anybody could actually believe for one second that he condones terrorism.

The effort to equate President Carter’s views with the energizing of white supremacist groups and their vile outlook is despicable. This critique is the refuge of a debater grasping at straws, utilizing ad hominem attacks in the desperate hope of undercutting a former president ably speaking against Israel’s domination of the Palestinians. President Carter noted in his Brandeis speech, “I have never claimed or believed that American Jews control the news media.” It is safe to assume he also rejects the belief of white supremacists on “Jewish control of government and foreign policy.”

As for the brief mention of apartheid, it is well worth noting what Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu stated, “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

As a result it seems that you have turned to a world of advocacy, including even malicious advocacy. We can no longer endorse your strident and uncompromising position. This is not the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter we came to respect and support. Therefore it is with sadness and regret that we hereby tender our resignation from the Board of Councilors of the Carter Center effective immediately.

MB: Advocacy for Palestinian freedom can scarcely be described as “malicious advocacy.” President Carter, with his calm delivery and deep humanitarian concern, cannot be accurately portrayed as “strident.” What is both strident and malicious is the previously mentioned rhetoric of many of those challenging Carter. About this the Board members are absolutely silent in their letter.

President Carter with his most recent op-ed has wisely sought to raise the debate and get it back to the substance of peacemaking and ending the subjugation of the Palestinians. In the Washington Post of 18 January 2007 he writes, “I am concerned that public discussion of my book ‘Palestine Peace Not Apartheid’ has been diverted from the book’s basic proposals: that peace talks be resumed after six years of delay and that the tragic persecution of Palestinians be ended. Although most critics have not seriously disputed or even mentioned the facts and suggestions about these two issues, an apparently concerted campaign has been focused on the book’s title, combined with allegations that I am anti-Israel. This is not good for any of us who are committed to Israel’s status as a peaceful nation living in harmony with its neighbors.” This is the crux of the matter. Many of Carter’s critics cannot accept that one can articulate a simultaneous desire to end the “persecution of Palestinians” and secure an Israel “living in harmony with its neighbors.” That Carter is doing so is cause for hope, not dismay and letters of resignation.

Michael F. Brown is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center. Previously, he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. He is on the board of Interfaith

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