President Jimmy Carter’s latest book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Simon and Schuster 2006), released yesterday, has been primed for controversy. Weeks before it hit the bookshelves, election-hungry Democrats were disavowing it because it used the word “apartheid” to describe the discrimination against Palestinians living in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. House Representative and soon-to-be Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote: “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously.” But does the President’s book really warrant the swift condemnation leveled against it by his own party?
To put the name “apartheid” to Israeli policies is nothing new. Hendrik Verwoerd, South African Prime Minister and architect of apartheid did so in 1961. Israeli academic Uri Davis made the claim in 1987, as did Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu in 1989 and again in 2002. What makes Jimmy Carter unique is that he is the first U.S. President to make that comparison. Unlike the others, Carter’s description is carefully qualified. He writes: “The driving purpose of the separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa not racism but the acquisition of land” (189-190). What’s more, Carter’s assessment of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians contradicts the observations he catalogues in his own text. He writes that “There has been a determined and remarkably effective effort to isolate settlers from Palestinians, so that a Jewish family can commute from Jerusalem to their highly subsidized home deep in the West Bank on roads from which others are excluded, without ever coming in contact with any facet of Arab life” (190).
In his failed effort not to offend, Carter overlooks several critical aspects of Israeli policy. Since its inception, Israel has striven to establish a strong Jewish majority within the state, treating the ratio of Jews to non-Jews as a national security issue. Numerous Israeli policies from the expulsion of three quarters of a million Palestinians in Israel’s founding years to the route of Israel’s current “security barrier” are designed to preserve Jewish demographic predominance. Palestinians citizens of the state of Israel face a catalogue of over 20 discriminatory laws, based solely on their identity as non-Jewish citizens, including the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, but denies that same right to native Palestinians.
Carter’s book eloquently describes the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it is here that Israel exhibits its strongest parallels to apartheid. He writes about the extensive road system that crisscrosses the West Bank but which Palestinians are forbidden to use. Palestinians in the West Bank often require permission simply to travel from one village to the next, and pass through numerous Israeli military checkpoints, reminiscent of South Africa’s infamous “pass system” which controlled the movement of blacks. Carter also levels a strong criticism against “the wall,” which secures Israel’s control of confiscated Palestinian lands and separates Palestinian communities from each other. He quotes Father Claudio Ghiraldi, the priest of the Santa Marta Monastery in Bethany: “Countering Israeli arguments that the wall is to keep Palestinian suicide bombers from Israel, Father Claudio adds…’The Wall is not separating Palestinians from Jews; rather Palestinians from Palestinians'” (194).
Faced with such overwhelming evidence, it is difficult to imagine how the label of apartheid has not been used more frequently to describe Israeli policies, and without any qualifications. But Jimmy Carter, though he remains the elder statesman of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, writes within the narrow confines of the American policy tradition in the region, a tradition that has, for decades, favored virtually unconditional financial, military, diplomatic and emotional support for Israel.
Carter falls short of a full critique of Israel’s treatment of non-Jews under its rule, but his book challenges Americans to see the conflict with eyes wide open. He places the blame on “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land” as “the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land” and he places equal blame on the United States for “the condoning of illegal Israeli actions from a submissive White House and U.S. Congress in recent years.”
Americans can only hope that the newly elected Congress, led by Ms. Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, will read beyond that title page and that one day, they too, will see the writing on the wall.
LENA KHALAF TUFFAHA wrote this commentary for the Institute for Middle East Understanding.