Jimmy Carter Is Right on Palestine Statehood

After 30 years of failed negotiations, maybe it's time to give the Palestinians equal footing

Pro-Israeli marchers confront Jewish peace activists during a parade on the Ben Franklin Parkway commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. (May 2008) PHOTO: Christopher Moraff

In 2006, former president and Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter drew the scorn of the Israeli government and its supporters when he published a book outlining a plan for peace in Palestine that equated Israel’s policies in the occupied territories with South African “apartheid.”

For context, the International Criminal Court classifies apartheid as one of 11 “crimes against humanity” and defines it as an act “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

In other words, it’s not an accusation to be made lightly.

Defending his position on the MSNBC show Hardball, Carter pointed as evidence for his claims to: ‘[t]he [Israeli] occupation of Palestinian land, the confiscation of that land that doesn’t belong to Israel, the building of settlements on it, the colonization of that land and then the connection of those isolated but multiple settlements … with each other by highways on which Palestinians can not travel and in many cases can not even cross.” He went on to characterize the conditions of life in the Occupied Territories as “one of the worst examples of human rights abuses I know.”

Regardless of how one feels about Carter’s assertions, it’s impossible to quibble with the man’s authority on the subject. Since the 1990s he has traveled extensively in the Middle East and North Africa on missions of diplomacy and coalition building. In 1978, as president, Carter came closer than any leader before or since to establishing a roadmap for peace between Arabs and Israelis. The Camp David Accords led to the establishment of the first diplomatic ties between Israel and an Arab country (Egypt) and laid the foundation for the sporadic dialogue between the parties (Oslo 1993, for instance) that has continued―albeit tenuously―to this day.

Last Tuesday, Carter came out in support of the Palestinian Authority’s planned move to gain official status in the United Nations, saying he “reluctantly” backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for state membership as an “alternative to a deadlock.” Carter stressed that his support was predicated on the failure of the Obama administration to further peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  Since Obama took office, the two sides have only met once, briefly, a testament to the doggedness of conservative Likud Party Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu―who refused to pick up negotiations where his more progressive predecessor Ehud Olmert left off.

On Friday Abbas is expected to make a plea to the United Nations Security Council for full state membership in the international body; at last count he was close to having the necessary two-thirds vote to pass the measure. As of Monday, only the U.S. and Germany definitively opposed the bid and President Obama has pledged to use America’s veto power to halt the move should that become necessary. Abbas’s other option, and one that holds more promise, is to vie for the lesser classification of “state observer” status in the General Assembly, which will give the PA more authority to draft resolutions and make formal appeals.

By Wednesday the Obama administration was locked in backroom 11th hour negotiations aimed at avoiding the confrontation. In a speech before the UN General Assembly, the president stressed his belief that the proper venue for a resolution of Palestinian Statehood is not the United Nations.

“…[t]he deadlock will only be broken,” the president said, “when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes [and] each side can see the world through the other’s eyes.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, but unfortunately that’s all it is. For more than 30 years, beginning at Camp David, what little negotiation has occurred between the Israelis and Palestinians has been on unequal footing. As occupiers, the Israelis have maintained strict control over the movements of an entire nation, using military force when necessary, while systematically colonizing Palestinian land. According to one Israeli human rights group, settlements now cover more than 40 percent of the West Bank, a fifth of them on private Palestinian land (as opposed to “state land” legally acquired by Israel.) Between October 2010 and July of this year alone, more than 2,500 building projects have commenced in the West Bank, double the number of those in Israel, while construction continues on a more than 400-mile long wall that will effectively isolate the entire West Bank. Today Palestinians need permits to travel from one town to the next in their own territory.

It doesn’t take a strategist to know this is not an ideal position from which to negotiate. But that hasn’t stopped the PA from making significant strides in nation building that have been recognized by the international community. Earlier this year both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund lauded the Palestinian state’s “solid track record in reforms and institution-building in the public finance and financial areas,” with the World Bank adding that the Authority is “well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.”

It seems the only thing standing in its way is the refusal of Israel to get back to the negotiating table and stop building settlements in land that is outside of the boundaries of the pre-1967 Green Line. Can anyone really blame Abbas for taking the issue international?

When considering an issue as charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is best to avoid qualitative assessments and focus instead on the facts. So here they are.

It’s been nearly a full century since Britain first created the tinderbox that is now comprised of Israel and the Occupied Territories by simultaneously promising the land it took in 1917 from the Ottoman Empire (which had controlled it since the 1500s) to both the indigenous Arabs (with the help of Lawrence of Arabia) and a then small but growing community of Zionists (through the Balfour Agreement).

Things only got worse when, in 1947, the United Nations issued U.N. General Assembly Resolution No. 181, which formally partitioned Palestine between Jews (whose numbers swelled during and after the Second World War) and Arabs.  According to the nonprofit Middle East Research and Information Project, the deal went something like this: the Palestinians, who owned cumulatively more than 92 percent of the land, were given less than half of it, while Jews were given 56 percent of the land even though they owned only 8 percent of it and they made up less than a third of the population. Not surprisingly, the Palestine Arabs rejected a plan that would dissect their nation and leave them short changed in the process and dug in for a fight. The State of Israel was declared a year later with little account given to the borders outlined in the UN declaration.

Three wars and two nationwide Intifadas later, we are right where this all started, in the United Nations. Which is why no one, least of all the Palestinian Authority, is under any illusion that membership in the UN will miraculously lead to an end to the conflict. To echo the president, in order to reach a lasting peace “it is the Israelis and the Palestinians … who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them.”

But UN membership, or a compromise of “state observer” status, will go a long way toward that goal by giving the Palestinians the proper platform for negotiating on the world stage.

I can’t imagine why that would be a problem.