Jimmy Carter

Questions Selected and Asked of
Former President Carter

Question 1 :

Mr. President, in recent years, many rallies have taken place on America’s college campuses with college students taking sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict and this University is included in that list.  Do you believe the lack of cooperation between these conflicting student groups obstructs chances of peace efforts between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East?

Former President Carter:

No I don’t.  I think an altercation or debate or sometimes even an uncomfortable confrontation on a college campus in America is a good move in the right direction.  But I would like to see the leaders of those two groups form a combined group that would take advantage of my invitation to go to Palestine and see what’s going on.  I think if there were debates in the public arena in the US including members of Congress and so forth that brought out into the open all the issues that would not make necessary the debates on the campus.  But in the absence of that, I don’t blame the students.  If I were a student, I would be debating and maybe demonstrating as well.  Thank you Chris, I hope you took part in it.

Question 2:

Mr. President, do you think that Israel and the US should recognize and negotiate with the Hamas led Palestinian government in light of the fact that other countries - including Russia - are beginning to do so?

Former President Carter:

Yes I think they should.  I was there on election day and I saw that Hamas candidates won only 42% of the popular vote, but because of the wisdom of the Hamas political organizers, they only had 1 candidate for each seat, so that gave them a majority of the total parliament seats, even though they got less than the majority of the popular vote.  Immediately after that, I went to Ramallah, where the Carter Center has a permanent office.  I met with the leader of Hamas, Abu Mazen, and I encouraged him to participate in the unity government with Hamas at that time.  Mazen decided not to do so.  In absence of the Fatah party, Hamas then formed a parliament without any opposition voices which I thought was a mistake.  Since then, King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia has brought the leaders of Hamas and Fatah to Saudi Arabia and they’ve now formed a unity government.  I think Hamas and Fatah have negotiated so that the key members of the parliament, like the finance minister and interior minister, have been selected from among distinguish Palestinians who are not active members of Hamas or Fatah.  One of them, the finance minister, wrote the editorial that I told you about.  I think yes, that Israel should negotiate with the unity government because the top leaders of that unity government - including the President - have said we will abide by all the previous agreements the PLO concluded including the Oslo Agreements and the recognition of Israel.  I think that negotiations should take place.

Follow up question:

Should they negotiate with Hamas as a terrorist organization?

Former President Carter:

It wouldn’t be negotiating with Hamas as an organization because Hamas is a multifaceted, multinational organization - some of the leaders are in Egypt, some in Syria and so forth.  No need for Israel to negotiate with Hamas, but to negotiate with the unity government that comprises all the citizens of the occupied territories that have been formed as a result of an honest and free and open election.  Yes, the alternative is not to negotiate at all and to that the stale mate continues and the bloodshed continue.  Despite the tremendous pressure being exerted by Israel and the US, some groups are now having negotiations and communications with the unity government, including Russia always, and now more recently the European Union.  That wall that’s been built against any sort of dealing with the Palestinian government is being broken down.

Question 3:

Given the wars and terrorism against Israel before 1967 and today’s radical Islamists who reject the right of any Jewish state to exist in the region, what assurances do you have that there would be peace if Israel did indeed withdraw to the pre1967 borders? 

Former President Carter:

I make clear that the ‘67 border can be modified by good faith talks to leave at least half to Israeli settlers in Palestine.  I think that’s the most logical conclusion.  The answer to that is something that I covered in my talk.  All 23 Arab nations unanimously have said they would accept Israel’s right to exist within regional borders.  They also said when questioned about what relationships would you have with Israel and King Abdullah, speaking for the group, we would have the same relationship between the Arab countries and Israel as we have with each other.  So that’s a full demonstration of all the Arab countries including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, that they would recognize Israel’s right to exist and live in peace.  As I also said in my talk, 81% of the Palestinian people who were questioned in the recent public opinion poll in Hebrew University said they support the 2 state solution with peace for Israel in its recognized borders and justice for the Palestinian.  So overwhelmingly, that’s true and the finance minister of the unity government declared in an Op Ed piece in the LA Times that all the previous agreements made by the PLO to recognize Israel would be binding under the new unity government.  All of those are evidence that peace could come to Israel and Palestine if Israel would just withdraw to reasonable lines and recognize a Palestinian right to govern themselves.  I might add quickly about the wall which is horrendous.  It’s an abomination.  When it was originally proposed by the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with his deputy, they said let’s build a wall on the border between Israel and Palestine.  Then Rabin was assassinated because he made peace with the Palestinian through the Oslo Agreements and Netanyahu  and Sharon and Olmert and other right wing members of the government said let’s don’t build a wall on the border.  Let’s let the war go deep inside Palestine to carve out property that we would in the future enclose in Israel.  So that’s the problem with the wall. The international court has said that any wall built on the border would be acceptable as was the case with the Berlin Wall.  The Berlin Wall was built in East Germany right on the border.  This wall is not built in Israel, it’s built deep inside Palestine. 

Follow up question:

You mentioned the 23 nations agreeing.  Do you believe they are willing to take the actions against groups that do not follow the state policies?

Former President Carter:

No doubt about that.  Yes.  The Palestinian people now are being starved to death because the US and Israel have cut off all funds to them.  They are heavily dependent upon Arab financial support just for food and water.  Over half the people in Gaza - which is being deliberately strangled with a wall all around it - over half the people are only getting 1 meal a day.  And so the political pressure and the economic pressure, in my opinion, would be adequate to convince members of the unity government to accept an agreement with Israel.

Question 4:

What would be the consequences of establishing a Palestinian state for the Palestinians?  How would it impact their lives?

Former President Carter:

It would be like morning breaking after a dark night, a lull after a horrible storm.  These people are being persecuted incredibly; deprived of economic existence, deprived of freedom to move from one place to another.  Their prime property has been taken away from them forcibly.  They’re segregated much worse than blacks and whites in this country were segregated during those ancient days when I was a child, and so to hope to form their own state or nation in a contiguous area that they can govern alongside Israel and a chance to live in peace would be like a breath of fresh air or freedom after you’ve been incarcerated after you’ve been in a horrible prison.  It would transform their lives completely and that’s what ought to happen.

Question 5:

Mr. President, with the 2008 presidential election just 18 months way, do you believe that the next administration will have the ability to improve Israeli/ Palestinian relations and what will this improvement require on the part of the US?

Former President Carter:

Every administration of the US since Israel was founded as a nation has had a wonderful opportunity to promote peace.  And as I pointed out, when I became President, I was the 7th President to serve after Israel became a nation.  All of my 6 predecessors had taken a balanced position between Israel and their Arab neighbors.  President Clinton did the best he could; unfortunately just the last few months of his admininstration.  He waited 7.5 years before he tried.  Unfortunately.  But he did the best he could.  And he made some good progress.  He wasn’t quite successful but it was based on his contribution that the Geneva Accords that I described to you was finally concluded 3 years later.  So yes, the next President will have an opportunity, as have all predecessors, to do it.  I might say that George Bush Senior was one of the strongest voices from the White House that insisted Israel stop confiscating Palestinian land and quit building settlements.  There was a major settlement planned by the Israelis between Jerusalem and Bethlehem; it’s only about 7 miles.  And George H.W. Bush said if you continue with that settlement, we’ll cut off aid to Israel - we now give Israel $10 million a day in aid - so George Sr. cut off that aid temporarily and Israel stopped building the settlement.  When I was over there later after he left office, the settlement was being built again.  So yes, any President, if willing to exert the authority and influence of our nation, can bring about a peace agreement.  I might point out that my impression since I wrote my book is that a majority of American Jewish citizens support what I have told you in my talk this morning.  But they are very quiet about it because it’s difficult for an American Jewish citizen publicly to criticize the government of Israel under any circumstances.  But privately, yes, so there’s no doubt that the President, that if he/she actively supported peace talks, they would have support from the American people, from the international community, and also from a strong majority of American Jewish citizens. 

Question 6:

Could you please explain the implications and possible global and regional consequences of a premature withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, leaving a weak ineffective Iraqi government body to maintain control and it’s impact of that on the region?

Former President Carter:

One of the greatest mistakes that our nation has ever made in history was invading Iraq in the first place.  It was an action based on lies, either deliberate or inadvertent.  It was the abandonment of a worthwhile military engagement that we had initiated in Afghanistan.  We abandoned, in effect, our fight against Al Qaeda, the hope of arresting their leader and it has sapped away America’s international form of goodwill and a substantial portion of our monetary resources.  It’s dehabilitated our military forces.  A very wise group made a recommendation; the Hamilton Baker report unanimously - half democrats and half republicans - recommended we withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.  Not in a disorderly but in an orderly manner and put the responsibility on the Iraqi government to manage their own affairs and to control violence.  My own opinion and the opinion of the Baker Hamilton commission was that a large part of the balance that now takes place in Baghdad and in other provinces is caused by the presence of the American troops there.  Just removing our troops would lessen the level of environmental balance.  The other thing that they recommended that has not yet been done with any sort of commitment and enthusiasm but reluctance by the US government, is to have an international conference to convince the Iraqi people that once the US occupation ends, that the Iraqi’s will have control over their military, political, and economic affairs including oil.  And to bring in Syria, Iran and the full scale participation - maybe even along with Russia and France - to let the Iraqi people be reassured that they can run their own affairs.  So in my opinion, there would be no deleterious affect of an orderly but fully committed withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Question 7:

Whether for economic or security reasons, the US has always had a stake in the Middle East.  The region is exceptionally important for my generation who has grown up surrounded by the news and events in the Middle East.  How do you see the US/Middle East relations changing during my generation?  What can you say to the people of my generation who seem indifferent to what is going on in that part of the world?

Former President Carter:

I think you put your question to include the answer.  I think the main problem with college students is indifference, a lack of deep commitment to help resolve and to even assume leadership in changing things around the world which you deplore.  The stagnation of the situation in the Middle East is one of the preeminent problems that the world faces now.  And you see in the government, which I’ve said ad-nauseam in my remarks this morning, nothing is going on.  There’s fear – political fear – among presidential candidates or candidates for US senate or congress, even to speak out in a balanced position on anything that relates to Israel.  They’re afraid they’ll lose their campaign for reelection or election.  I think there the college student group in the whole country could play a crucial role because you don’t fear the consequences of honesty and frankness in addressing complex issues.  You have nothing to lose, really, like I don’t have anything to lose.  I’m not running for office.  I have secret service protection the rest of my life.  I can speak out.  I would hope that throughout California, which always takes the initiative in the 50 states in doing good things on the environment, ought to take the initiative in bringing peace to the Middle East and just say we don’t want to ever abandon Israel or Israeli security.  We just want good faith, balanced peace talks to initiate, we want justice and fairness for the Palestinians, that’s all we want.  It sounds like a proposal about which no one can disagree.  But you try to talk to your congress member or your US senator or the Presidential candidates and you’ll find that they are mute.  They will not discuss it.  I think there is a main role that the college students can play, not just in the Middle East, but in the question of nuclear arms agreements - every single one of which has been violated or abandoned or rejected in the last 6 years.  Just as in the case of environmental equality where the Kyoto round and global warming has been completely ignored or derogated or condemned as a promise by this administration.  By the substitution of an age old commitment of going to war only when our security was in danger to a concept of preemptive war which is completely unheard of.  The abandonment of our nation’s championship of human rights and the substitution of Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo prison as an image of what the US does.  All these things are issues where various groups of students might decide to adopt them as their primary interest.  It just happens that the one I’m talking about this morning is the most important to me, and that’s Middle East peace.  There’s no limit, in my opinion, to what college students could do if you would adopt the Middle East peace process or the others that I mentioned as a burning crusade for you and not be deterred by any means from pursuing it with your complete commitment.

Jimmy Carter
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School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine