If you put 1,500 college students in a room and make them listen to 30 minutes of canned analysis followed by some valedictory banalities from a failed ex-president, they will still give the man a standing ovation. After all, many of them waited in line for two hours to get tickets.
The funny thing is that those who have been involved in "the struggle" for years (well, semesters) probably left the room wondering about the future of the resistance ... with "friends" like him. First, President Carter denied that Israeli policies in the West Bank were racist. Then, he explained that he never claimed that "events and conditions in Israel" constitute apartheid. Why then does his book carry the subtitle Peace not Apartheid? As As'ad AbuKhalil has said, it is clear that while
Jimmy Carter gave his new book a strong title ... he lacks the courage to defend it. He always waffles when he is asked to explain it.Instead, Carter admitted that he chose the title to provoke and to get people to pay attention. If he made an argument to the effect that Israel engages in a policy of apartheid in the West Bank, I missed it. In lieu of such an argument, he told the audience that he simply "can't think of any word that describes the situation more accurately."
I have heard many people invoke "apartheid" when describing Israel's policies in the territories. On my walk to campus, I pass by signs urging me to "boycott apartheid Israel" every day. It is also true that the term is thrown about with abandon by some on the Israeli far left. But I have never heard a rigorous argument for this, especially not one that actually makes reference to the situation in South Africa. I don't find these comparisons any more convincing than I find the equation of Israeli policies with Nazism.
Aside from the apartheid question, there isn't a whole lot to get excited about. Carter's vision of peace sounded suspiciously close to the one articulated by the Zionist left for years. In Carter's view, the Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to return to Israel proper but would be compensated by an international fund; half of the Israeli settlements should be annexed to Israel as part of a territorial exchange with the Palestinians; and guaranteeing Israel's security from terrorism is as important as the creation of a stable and prosperous Palestine alongside it.
On top of that, Carter spent the first ten minutes of his speech sucking up to the Zionists. First, he highlighted his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, including his interventions to help neo-liberal and hawkish refuseniks like Natan Sharansky. Then, Carter spoke proudly of his role in prohibiting U.S. companies from cooperating with the Arab League boycott of Israel by engaging in "secondary boycotts." He also talked about his role in setting up the commission that planned the construction of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Time and again, he invoked the visions of "justice and righteousness" in the Hebrew scriptures and in the Jewish tradition; he sounded almost like Michael Lerner.
According to Carter, the "powerful influence of AIPAC" constitutes only an "additional factor." And there is nothing wrong with the lobby, "which is exercising its legitimate right to pursue the goal of defending the most conservative governments of Israel."
To top it all off, Carter kept saying such nice things about ordinary Israelis, shifting the blame solely onto "the leaders of Israel, AIPAC, and most of the vocal leaders of American Jewry." Indeed, among the latter - the rabbis - Carter claimed, there were many who, in private conversation, told him that "given the American climate, it was almost impossible for them to criticize Israel."
President Carter began his talk with the claim that few people have had as many opportunities to get to know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he has. I am sure that Carter has done some very valuable work in the region, especially as an elections monitor (no sarcasm intended here). But I was a bit perturbed by the state of his knowledge at some points of the talk - though this was usually marginal to the argument.
For example, Carter referred twice to the "three [sic] Israeli soldiers that the Palestinians are holding." He advocated that Israel swap these for "9,800 Palestinian prisoners" held by the country. Did Carter's people never brief him on the fact that Hizbullah, not Palestinian militants, is holding two of these soldiers?
Carter was very sanguine about the prospects for peace in the region. In his view - which certainly does not lack adherents - "the growth of Islamic extremism is directly related to the continuing bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians." He even felt it necessary to add that it is "foolish to say otherwise." Muslim animosity for the West is mostly "because of the Palestinians' plight." The notion that Iraqis will stop killing each other and that al-Qaeda will throw in the towel as soon as the Israelis leave the West Bank is ridiculous and dangerous (for Americans). It will be disproved as soon as some idiot actually tries to turn it into policy.
The former president is equally optimistic about the future of Palestine, after "the occupation" - that great metaphysical evil - has been scourged. Given the reports coming daily out of Gaza, I have to admit that I almost laughed out loud (I wasn't the only one) when Carter remarked that "the Palestinians, in their own area, have almost perfect democracy." Don't expect to find a lot of reporting on this in the Western media, but see Avi Issacharoff's article on the democratic situation in Gaza right now.
Finally, I was a little confused by the answer Carter gave to a question from the audience on what the U.S. should do about Darfur. Carter explained that he had met Bashir; "he's a devout Muslim, which is part of the cause of the war between the north and south." Was Carter really confused about the location of Darfur and the causes of the genocide there?