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An Interview with Jimmy Carter
The Future of Gaza
by RIZ KHAN

RIZ KHAN (Al Jazeera): Hello and welcome. Could Hamas be a key to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians? In spite of the U.S. condemning the democratically elected organization as terrorists and Israel launching a prolonged military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, there are those who feel there cannot be a solution without Hamas in peace talks. The argument for dialogue gains weight with the backing of a former U.S. president who’s been willing to take on the critics and controversy as he continues to staunchly campaign for peace in the region. In his book, “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work,” former President Jimmy Carter argues that, despite the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, the conditions are right for a peace deal.

Well, for more than 30 years, Jimmy Carter has worked on building peace in the Middle East. The 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel paved the way for later agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians. So as a new U.S. president takes on the challenge of finding a resolution, what advice does President Carter offer, will it be received willingly and why is he hopeful now, when the two sides seem further apart than ever? President Carter, it’s an honor to speak with you again.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It’s a pleasure, thank you.

MR. KHAN: Sir, you’ve been saying positive things about President Obama’s approach to peace in the Middle East, but your views with him seem to diverge when it comes to the issue of Hamas. You’ve advocated including Hamas – talking to Hamas – where he’s taken the line of the previous administration, that Hamas shouldn’t be in the peace talks. Sir, do you think he’s wrong?

PRES. CARTER: Well, in the United States, now, it’s not possible to move immediately into discussions with Hamas, but my position is not completely different from Obama, because I realize what I just said is true, but there’s no way to have a permanent peace in the Middle East without the inclusion of Hamas. The first step, as far as the Palestinians go, will obviously have to be a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and I think all of the Arab world – and I think the Palestinians, both sides – want to see that done.

So far, as you know, it’s been objected to and obstructed by the United States, and that may change, at least on the United States side, in the next few months. But the other thing is that I’ve seen that Hamas is willing to have some flexibility in their previous position. They have told me and announced publicly on this TV station last April that they would accept any peace agreement negotiated between Abu Mazen and the Israelis if the agreement was submitted to the Palestinians in a referendum and if the Palestinians approved it, or if there was a unity government that could approve. So that opened up a door to an absolutely necessary fact, and that is that Hamas has got to be involved before the peace can be concluded.

MR. KHAN: Sir, you met with Hamas for a second time this past December and said it was putting all of its eggs in the Obama basket. What do you think Hamas hopes is possible under President Obama that wasn’t under President Bush?

PRES. CARTER: I would say just a basic change in everything. One is that neither – that President Bush didn’t start working on the Mideast situation until toward the end of his term, and the other thing is that when he did start working on it, the United States played a very dormant role pretty well approving or accepting what Israel was doing by increasing massive numbers of settlements, increasing the number of checkpoints and continuing to build a separation barrier, or the segregation wall, as it’s called.

So I think that Obama will have a much more balanced point of view. Also, in the previous 16 years, most of the envoys for the president in the Mideast have been openly and publicly committed to Israel’s side. Some of them have been professional lobbyists for Israel. George Mitchell is a different person. And he will be objective and fair. He’s a tough negotiator. He was able to bring peace to Northern Ireland, which everybody thought was impossible, and he’s on the way over there now for a fact-finding tour. I gave him a copy of my book, at his request. I gave the first copy of the book to President Obama. So I think that at least they understand my points of view.

But I don’t think there’s any doubt that with this new administration in Washington and a new approach, that we’ll see a move toward peace. The other thing is that it’s coming down to a choice between one state and two states. And as I describe in one of the chapters in my book, a one-state solution would be a catastrophe for Israel, because with only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, you would, at this moment, have a majority of non-Jews in the population. And you would very soon, in just a few years, have a majority of Arabs, and it’s very likely that you could no longer have a Jewish state, or the Israelis would have to force the Palestinians to leave the West Bank, or they would have to have a nation within which part of their citizens couldn’t have a vote. So none of those things are attractive, even for Israel.

MR. KHAN: Is there anything left for there to be a two-state situation? Gaza’s in ruins, the West Bank’s fragmented – there’s not much left, really, for the Palestinians.

PRES. CARTER: I think that, obviously, Gaza can and will be rebuilt. Gaza has been very resilient. I hate to see it happen. The Carter Center has a full-time office in Gaza; we know what’s happening there. But Gaza will be rebuilt. And I think that the proposal by the Arab nations is the key formula that I personally espouse. And it’s completely compatible with the final stages of the so-called international quartet’s “Roadmap for Peace,” and it’s also compatible with the official policies of the United States and the United Nations resolutions and the Geneva Accords, that is, Israel withdraws from the Palestinian territories in exchange for peace and with accommodation for the right of return and also for Jerusalem.

And those things can take place. I think that there’s one degree of flexibility that I would espouse, which I do in the book and that is that, let Israel have a small part of the West Bank right around Jerusalem so they could retain about half of their settlers in the West Bank, but not deep in the West Bank. And then in exchange for that let an equivalent amount of land be given to the Palestinians. And I would personally like to see a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza – it’s about 30, 35 miles – about 50 kilometers. Even Ariel Sharon, when I talked to him in 2005, said that that would be a good idea. So that’s the kind of exchange that can take place only through good-faith talks.

MR. KHAN: Now, in terms of Hamas, with your meetings with them – obviously you take a lot of flack for that. Do you feel Hamas can be trusted, that they would – of course, they’re always portrayed as never sticking to ceasefires, that they are pretty much part of the problem. Israel certainly portrays them as the main reason the ceasefire ends.

PRES. CARTER: Well, I know what happened in this last ceasefire. I was the one that helped to orchestrate it. When I went that April I asked Hamas to accept a ceasefire just in Gaza. Their first position was no, we’ll only accept a ceasefire with the entire Palestine, that is, Gaza and the West bank. I knew that Israel would not accept that, so they finally accepted okay, we’ll accept the proposition that you put forward to us, Mr. President, that is, Gaza ceasefire only. I relayed that information to the chief negotiator between the Hamas and Israel, Omar Sulaiman, head of security in Egypt.

And he pursued that proposition and finally reached an agreement late in May – about a month and six weeks later – and the agreement was that they would stop all attacks on each other, that Hamas would stop all the rockets and that Israel would open up the supply line going in to supply food and water and medicines and fuel to the one and a half million Palestinians. That was the agreement. Hamas kept their promise I would say 99 percent. Three months there was just one mortar round or rocket fire – no damage done. But Israel did not keep their promise on opening up their supply lines; they only increased to about twenty percent.

But still Hamas kept their promise until the fourth day of November, at which time Israel attacked Gaza militarily because they claimed that there was a tunnel being built. It turned out that the tunnel was completely within the walls of Gaza and there are probably a thousand other tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. But that was what precipitated the breakdown in the ceasefire.

MR. KHAN: So now, as you know, on this show we give the viewers a chance to question you as well and we’ve got a call –

PRES. CARTER: Good.

MR. KHAN: – on the line from the U.K., Howard, what would you like to ask President Carter?

Q: Yes, Mr. Carter, while I commend you on what you’ve said on the occupied territories, I feel that in your book and your public remarks you have failed to understand the extent of the discrimination the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel – living in Israel proper suffer from and I would suggest to you to ask Al Jazeera for a copy of their two-party documentary called “Palestine Street” because the second part of that documentary has hard evidence of the kind of persecution and discrimination that Arab-Israeli citizens suffer from. You seem to think that it’s a beautiful democracy and they have all these democratic rights.

MR. KHAN: Howard, let me put that to President Carter.

PRES. CARTER: I don’t deny that, you know, but when I wrote my controversial book, that is, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid“, I specifically oriented it towards Palestine – the occupied territories – and not Israel. And it was Palestine peace, not apartheid. Well, there’s no doubt that within Palestine there is apartheid and I defined apartheid in the book: Apartheid is when two different peoples occupy the same land, when they are forcibly segregated one from another and one dominates the other. That’s actually what’s happening in Palestine.

But I specifically refrained from including Israel in that book but I know what’s happening in Israel; I’ve read the documentaries – seen them and I’ve read the books about it. There’s not an equality of opportunity – citizenship in Israel, if for nothing else just the ownership of land.

MR. KHAN: Before I take another call, did that controversy with first book force you to really hold book on the second book, then?

PRES. CARTER: No.

MR. KHAN: Have you had to bite your tongue?

PRES. CARTER: No, the second book is a formula for peace and it describes the 30 years of history under different presidents, beginning with me and down to what’s happened. It describes the choice between a one-state and a two-state solution and it spells out the capability among all of those different elements that I have described to you – the official position of the U.S., United Nations resolutions, Arab positions and so forth – that they’re all exactly the same and the fact the peace is possible. That’s what I tried to do in the second book, but it wasn’t to describe the devastating status of the life of Palestinians under occupation.

MR. KHAN: Let’s get Ayun (ph) on the line from Switzerland. Thanks for your patience, Ayun, what would you like to ask?

Q: Yeah hi, it’s Aaron (sp).

MR. KHAN: Aaron, sorry, go ahead.

Q: (Chuckles.) No problem. So is there any evidence to suggest that Barack Obama will join the international community in recognizing that the state of Israel is an occupying power and that her occupation is a fundamental violation of international law? Will he do something as simple as that? Is there any evidence that suggests that whatsoever?

MR. KHAN: Okay.

PRES. CARTER: I believe he will. I think every president since I was in office has officially agreed with the United Nations resolutions, which emphasize the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war – I’m quoting directly from the preamble to it. And all of us have agreed, too – in official U.S. policy – that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories. The fact is that very few of the presidents have been willing to confront Israel’s forces in the United States, politically speaking.

I think that Obama has done more than anyone else in recent years in saying that I’m going to start immediately as soon as I get in office working on this and his choice of an envoy has been very significant because if you look back at the U.N.-U.S. envoys that have been in the Middle East, in charge of the Middle East in the past, almost all of them have been highly and closely affiliated with Israel, sometimes even professionally working for Israel.

But George Mitchell is a balanced and honest broker compared to the others. And I have high hopes that he will be the key representative of Obama and Obama will take a balanced position, which is what the international community does and what the official position of the U.S. government is.

MR. KHAN: A very quick thought before we take a break, sir. Do you think that Barack Obama’s silence during the pre-inauguration period when Gaza was in flames has hurt him in any way?

PRES. CARTER: I don’t think he was silent. I know the day that I came to Washington to meet with him, I think the sixth day of December, when I met with him at night, he pointed out that he had made a public statement condemning the suffering of the women and children and others under attack in Gaza. It wasn’t as strong a position as I may have made, but it was stronger than any of his predecessors would have made.

MR. KHAN: So we are going to ask you more questions in a moment. We have to take a short break now. More on our discussion with former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, in just a moment – as we pause, let me remind you, you can join the conversation with your questions and comments by logging onto livestation.com and entering the chat room. We’re taking a poll in there to find out if you think a two-state solution is still possible. We asked our chat room viewers, is a two-state solution still possible? The results are 65 percent of you said, yes, a two-state solution is possible, while 35 percent think the two-state solution is no longer possible. That’s 65 for and 35 say, no, it’s not possible.

Sir, just before the break, we were talking about the position the U.S. government has on the situation. I know that you also think that there are other parties that might get involved here, perhaps Syria is one that might be part of this and has been ignored.

PRES. CARTER: That’s true. I visited Syria every time I’ve been to the Mideast in recent years. And I always go by and see the new president there, Bashar al Assad, whom I’ve known since he’s been a college student, as a matter of fact, when he used to visit his father.

He is very eager to have normal diplomatic relations with the United States, which he hasn’t had under George Bush as president. I hope that will be one of the earlier developments of the Obama administration, to open up ties of communication and diplomatic relations with Syria.

Also I think that it’s very crucial for comprehensive Middle East peace to have an agreement on the Golan Heights. And, as you know, the Bush administration did not approve of those negotiations that were taking place indirectly under the Turkish leadership. I was familiar with those talks from quite early in the timeframe. And they were done in a Turkish hotel, I understand, with the Israelis in one room and the Syrians in a different room and the Turks going back and forth.
But the framework or the basic formula for Golan Heights peace has been well-known for the last 20 years. And there is not very much flexibility there. And I believe that the next Israeli prime minister, with the United States’ support, will move and have a consummation of that peace agreement.

MR. KHAN: So we have on the line from Kenya, Mohammed (sp). Mohammed, good to hear from Kenya, go ahead. Go ahead, Mohammed. Please ask your question.

Q: How are you?

MR. KHAN: Good, thanks. Go ahead.

Q: The question is – I just want to put it to President Jimmy Carter and the other people who are watching from the Al Jazeera that, do you think it is possible that we can get one state so that we can do it, for example, the Israeli – the head of state and the Palestinians also, the prime minister, so they can share the land? As you can see, there is two small lands.

MR. KHAN: Okay. Mohammed, on that point, I think, President Carter, you’ve already said it would be disastrous from Israel’s perspective. Even this idea of power-sharing –

PRES. CARTER: I think it would because you’d have to have either one of three things. One, Israel would have to have, you might call, ethnic cleansing, to move – force Palestinians to leave Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza. And, obviously, Egypt and Lebanon and Jordan don’t want them to come in. Or you would have to have a one government where you deprive the Palestinians of the right to vote, which would be apartheid like South Africa, which the Israelis don’t want, either. The third thing is to let the Palestinians have a majority vote – the Arabs have a majority vote – which means you no longer have a Jewish state, so-called, as a special haven for Jews. And I don’t think the Israeli’s would accept any one of those three things, so a two-state solution is the only option left.

MR. KHAN: Let’s get to Kevin, who’s on the line from South Africa. Go ahead, Kevin.

OPERATOR: Your call has been placed on hold.

MR. KHAN: Oh – (chuckles) – he put us on hold. You mentioned George Mitchell is a good choice in your eyes. What about first lady – sorry, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, as first lady, made positive statements about the need to improve the lives of the Palestinians and then seemed to flip-flop, according to many people, when she was fighting for the Senate position in New York.

PRES. CARTER: Well, the Senate position from New York is a completely different political environment than serving under President Obama, and no matter how her feelings might be personally, as secretary of state – I don’t know what they are – she could certainly not violate the basic proposals that Barack Obama decides are best for this country.

MR. KHAN: Would people trust her, though, considering that change of position?

PRES. CARTER: Oh, I think so. And I think she’ll be loyal to Obama, and I don’t know what her motivations would be. I think when she expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, that was much more out of the political environment of New York state than it was after she became a senator there. So I think that she might very well feel deeply about the suffering of the Palestinian people.

MR. KHAN: Sir, we had an e-mail that came in from a viewer by the name of Robert Barnes (sp) who wrote in saying: “I’m an American and do not support what our government has been doing. The attack on Gaza was genocide with the whole world watching. AIPAC controls our government, not the people of America. AIPAC has become the puppet of Israel.” How confident are you that President Obama can overcome the power of the lobbyists? He’s said he doesn’t want lobbying influence.

PRES. CARTER: Well, AIPAC has never claimed to be committed to peace. If you look up AIPAC on Google, AIPAC is committed to support the policies of the Israeli government and they’ve been very effective. And it’s almost politically impossible for any member of the U.S. Congress to come out and publicly condemn Israel. They would have a difficult time getting re-elected in our country. But there is an emergence, in recent months – I’d say the last three or four years – of an increasing number of Jewish organizations within America who are for peace. And J Street is one small group, but there are a lot of others.

When I wrote this other book about Palestine, “Peace, not Apartheid,” I received the next month 6100 letters – an outpouring of letters about the book – and 71 percent were positive, for me. And a majority of those writers who identified themselves as Jewish also said good things about the book – it’s time somebody wrote a book that tells both sides of the issue, otherwise, we’ll never see peace for Israel, if only one side is presented in the United States. And as you know, there’s a vociferous and intense debate that goes on in Jerusalem, which you never see that kind of debate go on, in the news media or in anything else, in the United States.

MR. KHAN: And of course, that book was controversial, as you say. And one critic – I mean, and it makes you a target for the hard-line – you know, the right-wing or conservative crowd, as such. One critic said – described you as, “a person who has stuck his thumb in the eye of every president who has followed him.” Do you ever worry that you jeopardize official U.S. diplomacy by using Carter diplomacy?

PRES. CARTER: Well, I’m always very careful to use diplomacy in a very proper fashion. For instance, when I have been to the Mideast the last two times last year, including last month, I make publicly clear the fact that I’m not a mediator, not a negotiator. I’m just a fact-finder who goes over there representing not the U.S. government but the Carter Center. And I also always make sure that the president of the United States and the secretary of state knows where I’m going and with whom I’m going to meet.

And the day after I return home, I always meticulously send them a full trip report on everything I do on the trip to the White House, the State Department and also to the United Nations secretary general. So I don’t do anything secretly. I’m not a diplomat. I don’t negotiate. I just represent for my own organization.

MR. KHAN: Sir, another e-mail that came in, this time from Belgium, from Geoff Kimullen (ph) in Hofstader, who says: “There is need for economic cooperation between Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. At some point, it can be extended to others as well. Cooperation is more efficient than making war. If there is an economic future guaranteed for all, there is no need for aggression.” Now, I wonder if there’s been enough focus on the potential success of an economic plan.

PRES. CARTER: Not yet. There had been in the past. I think King Hussein was one of those that promoted that, as well as his brother. And I have always advocated the fact that if Lebanon and Syria and Jordan and Israel and Egypt could just get together, just the tourism that would flood in, collectively, in a peaceful environment, just to study Christianity and other religions would be incredible. And obviously, the great resources there – natural resources and mineral resources – would be a boon for the economy and for jobs for everyone. So if we can ever get peace, which I pray will happen during my lifetime, then I think we’ll have a very wonderful benefit from it economically.

MR. KHAN: Now, of course, the Camp David peace agreements – you negotiated peace between Israel and Egypt, but a lot of people say that that, perhaps, let Israel off the hook. And the critics say that it made Israel stronger and Egypt – that the headache of Egypt was taken away. And I wonder if, when you look back on it, that it might have been done differently?

PRES. CARTER: I can’t deny that, because when I was elected president, there had been four wars in the region in 25 years, primarily between Egypt and a few other Arabs versus Israel. And I thought it was best to bring peace to the people. And the Camp David Accords was two parts; one was between Israel and Egypt, which is what you mentioned. The other part was a commitment by Israel – by Menachem Begin – confirmed by the Knesset, their parliament, that Israel would withdraw, militarily and economically and politically from the West Bank and Gaza, and that they would acknowledge U.N. 242 as prevalent, that is, you couldn’t acquire territory by war. So Israel carried out the commitment made on peace with Israel (sic) – withdrawing from the Sinai, but they didn’t carry out the other part that they agreed to do that is concerning the Palestinians.

MR. KHAN: Sir, unfortunately, I have to stop you there. We’re out of time. Many more questions, but hopefully another time.

PRES. CARTER: I look forward to it.

This interview ran on Al Jazeera.