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Thursday, December 28, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Palestine - Peace Not Apartheid

Jimmy Carter's latest book, Palestine - Peace Not Apartheid is an attempt to provide a background for re-thinking strategies for achieving a sound peace agreement between Israel, Palestine, and other neighboring Arab countries. The book gained extra attention because its publication and some of the ideas overlapped that of the Iraq Study Group report. Both cite refocused efforts on solving the conflict between Palestinians and Israel as key to enabling an exit from Iraq. Carter's book in particular has been criticized because of conclusions Charter reaches about Israeli policies and, to some extent, conclusions he DOESN'T reach or emphasize about the Palestinian and Arab roles in the process.

Initial Impressions

While reading the book and especially while reading critiques of the book (good and bad), one quickly comes to the conclusion that the actual CONTENT of the book might have been better conveyed by loading the text into Microsoft Word and doing a global replace of (Israel / Israeli / Jew / Jewish) and (Palestine / Palestinian / Muslim / Islamic) with other sets of words devoid of any pre-existing emotional or political baggage that distract from the material. Most Americans of voting age have been exposed to the cast and scenery (Begin, Sadat, Arafat, Sharon, Lebanon, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, Sinai peninsula, West Bank, Syira, Hezbollah, ) for so long without really understanding the history, geography and underlying politics that seeing the same names and places pop up just recalls old (potentially incomplete or flawed) understandings.

I haven't made up my mind about how even-handed Carter's analysis or background material really is. I may not ever be qualified to render an opinion. However, it seems obvious people on the far ends of the debate spectrum will both point to comments or conclusions and become irate claiming that Carter glossed over negative points about the "other" side's offenses. The December 26 edition of The Wall Street Journal ran side by side op-ed pieces by a pro-Palestinian who viewed the book as helpful and a pro-Israeli writer who felt Carter had religious problems with Israel the country and Israel the idea (more on that later).

Candidly, the book really doesn't come across as well written. The organization of the material reads more like a personal journal rather than a dry but carefully outlined textbook. Many of the first few chapters are in fact based on recollections and actual notes Carter took during a visit to the region in 1973 prior to becoming President. The key point Carter attempts to make via the recollections is that the public mood and posture within Israel has changed dramatically between 1973 and the present. In 1973, Carter characterized the collective environment within Israel as optimistic, forward looking and open. By the 1990s, subsequent visits led Carter to characterize the environment within Israel as fearful, hawkish and locked down.

His point was that this darkened mood not only coincided with Israel adopting activist settlement policies that generated additional military obligations and threats but the mood directly RESULTED from those policies. Carter himself really makes no effort to sledgehammer this point home -- the narrative just states it as an observation and goes on. However, the point seems vastly important, not only for Israel in its struggles but for America in ours. Political policies that lead to military occupation result in a military that is

* continually under fire,
* continually operating as a police force which doesn't match its primary mission
* and continually exposed to asymmetric attacks which cannot be defeated by any traditional military response

Even if you don't agree with any of the conclusions in the book, Carter's description of the challenges facing the Israeli military as an occupying force will raise alarm bells regarding the decisions Americans have to make about Iraq. We are damaging our own long term interests by creating situations where we are forced to play the role of occupying power.

Parallels from 1982 and 2006

One of the most interesting points made in the book involves the parallels between the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel and the recent 2006 battle between Israel and Lebanon. In 1982, the attempted assassination of an Israeli ambassador to Britain was cited by Israel as justification for invading Beirut to chase out the PLO. Israel publicly blamed the PLO for the assassination attempt and the PLO had set up camp in Beirut to take advantage of the chaos of Lebanon's civil war to launch attacks across the border into Israel. In reality, the assassination attempt was later tied to terrorist Abu Nidal, who, while still a bad guy and an Arab, was not operating within the PLO camp. He had split from the PLO and Arafat over tactics earlier in the 70s and was operating for the most part as a free-lance terrorist. (#1) Carter states that while he was greatly concerned by the 1982 invasion, he was told at the time by a trusted source in Israel that the Reagan Administration had privately winked at the invasion while publicly condemning it.

Regardless of whether the original justifications and goals of the 1982 invasion were legitimate or not, the aftermath could not have been more disastrous to both Israel and the United States. The invasion led to the subsequent "peace-keeping" deployment of US Marines in a no-man's land at the Beirut airport which was subsequently bombed, killing 252 Marines, forcing our withdrawal and telegraphing one of several messages of "weakness" on the part of the United States to our enemies. The invasion also committed Israel to nearly 20 years of military entanglements as an occupying force that have complicated every aspect of any potential solution in the region.

Neither Israel nor the United States apparently learned a thing from the 1982 invasion in terms of the Arab / Israeli conflict. In 2006, a relatively routine "skirmish" scale attack by Palestinians in Gaza led Israel to invade Gaza, seal it off and arrest up to a third of the Palestinian parliament in the West Bank. In retaliation for THAT, Hezbollah forces in Lebanon killed three soldiers and took two others hostage. Israel cited THAT as a declaration of war on the part of the entire country of Lebanon and invaded again. Again, the United States publicly bemoaned the hostilities but made absolutely NO back-door efforts to curtail the attacks on either side. At least, the United States made no efforts until it became apparent that Israel was not going to "crush" the enemy and instead at best wound up with a "draw" which, in the geopolitical game of lowered expectations, appeared as a victory to the Arab world -- a victory against Israel and its American sponsor.

Of course, it takes no imagination to see parallels between Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon with America's 2003 invasion of Iraq. Regardless of one's take on the original intelligence and motivations, America completely failed to comprehend the long term likelihood of being trapped by assuming the role of occupying power in a hostile region and the vicious cycle of flawed political and military thinking that results from the tit-for-tat cycle of asymmetric violence.

Miscellaneous Critiques

There are more than a few annoyances and blind spots in the book. One surprise to me was the cursory treatment of Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. The entire reference? Here it is:

The Israelis launched an air strike that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor...

That's it. Looking back, the elimination of that reactor via a squadron of F-16s seems to easily qualify for honors as the single most productive use of military force in the region in the past thirty five years. At best, an incompetent Iraqi nuclear community might have completed construction of a plant that could have become another Chernobyl. At worst, the reactor could have provided Saddam refined material for a successful nuclear weapons program (or just a dirty bomb program) that would have been employed against Israel, Iran, Kuwait and others.

Carter's biggest blind spot seems to involve Yassir Arafat. Assume for a moment you agree one hundred percent with the underlying issues of the Palestinian position. Assume you accept the PLO as the authoritative voice of the Palestinian people in the debate. Assume you ignore Arafat's prior activities as a terrorist prior to his win in the 1996 elections (only fair -- Menachem Begin was also a terrorist for his cause in the 1940s..) With all these assumptions, Arafat was STILL a disaster for the Palestinian people. If he had even a tenth of the vision of Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordon, he had numerous occasions where he had the support of the Palestinian people behind him to make a change and utterly failed. Instead, his principle achievements were avoiding getting killed by factions within his own movement (granted, no small task) and embezzling somewhere between $300 million and $1.2 billion of funds from the Palestinian Authority to his own accounts.

In Carter's analysis, the descriptions of his personal meetings with Arafat and actions taken by Arafat are about as bland and neutral as taupe carpeting. What content isn't watered down in this overly deferential, non-judgmental tone suffers from an overabundance of "I" -- as in "Carter". I recommended this… I urged that… I condemned those… The most insightful point Carter makes about Arafat in particular hinges around the Israeli attack on his Ramallah headquarters in 2002 and subsequent "blockade" of Arafat from the government he was supposed to be leading. Israel's attack and blockade literally kept Arafat from controlling the levers of the Palestinian Authority and prevented him from meeting with virtually ANYONE in his government. At the same time, Israel cited his inability to control factions within his government as further justification for continued occupation of contested territories and draconian security policies in those territories -- a self-fulfilling Catch-22, which might have been Israel's actual strategy.

The Core of the Book

Most of the themes in the book are eventually tied together into a larger theme involving Israel's shifting policies regarding settlements it has established in territories gained in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Carter's comments about past military actions, terrorist attacks and legal obligations of the parties involved are tied back to UN Resolution #242 from 1967 (#2) that essentially established a cease fire and called upon Israel to withdraw from all territories occupied in the 1967 war and UN Resolution #338 from 1973 (#3) which demanded a cease fire for that conflict and the full implementation of the prior #242 resolution by all parties.

It is in this discussion where, as I commented earlier, having the entire book written using substitute nouns for the people, places and countries involved would make it easier to see the facts (or Carter's flawed presentation of them if you believe that) with fresh eyes. Carter's comments are mainly aimed at the implications of Israel's occupation of the territories gained in 1967 and 1973. Carter even confesses in the book he had difficulty getting along with Menachem Begin while President and their relationship didn't improve when Carter visited him as a private citizen and offered more blunt commentary on what Israel should and should not do.

The pro-Israel op-ed piece by Michael B Oren in the 12/26 WSJ explicitly states "the former president seems to have religious problems with Israel." Here's a direct quote:

Disturbed by secular Laborites, he is further unnerved by religiously minded Israelis who seek to fulfill the biblical injunction to settle the entire Land of Israel. There are "two Israels," Mr. Carter concludes, one which embodies "the ancient culture of the Jewish people, defined by Hebrew scriptures," and the other in "the occupied Palestinian territories" which refuses to "respect the basic human rights of the citizens."

That's Carter's religious problem? I'll be damned if I can find the problem with the logic there. That is the crux of the book and the larger problem in the region. Whether one agrees with the legal or moral justification for Israel's creation in 1948, Israel THE COUNTRY was created with specific, well-defined physical boundaries. The rest of the world is only expected to recognize Israel THE COUNTRY and not "Israel", the "virtual nation" referenced by various interpretations of one religion's ancient scriptures. In essence, Israel got what it got for territory in 1948 -- period. Had the cease fire arrangements Israel agreed to in 1967 or 1973 allowed Israel to keep those territories, then "Israel" would include those as well. However, those arrangements DIDN'T include those territories. Israel accepted those agreements. The territories are not theirs to use in augmenting their population via settlements.

Change the people, religions and territories for a moment. Assume the United States attacked Mexico in Tijuana. Assume Mexico fought back and in doing so, pushed north into San Diego before the cease fire was arranged and established checkpoints to control the residents and monitor traffic in and out of the city. Assume the cease fire agreement called for Mexico to withdraw from occupied San Diego after some period. Assume the continued operation of checkpoints by Mexican forces inside the United States are aggravating local residents of San Diego, eventually leading factions to fight back by lobbing RPGs and rockets into Mexico from locations in San Diego. Assume that a group of Aztecs believe that metro San Diego is part of a larger "Aztec nation" owed to the Aztecs since time immemorial. Now that Mexico is in San Diego, Mexico is encouraging modern day Aztec descendents to move to San Diego and begin running coffee shops and dry cleaner shops, further annoying the present-day residents of San Diego.

Who's at fault? Who should back off? Who should blink first?

In the fictional San Diego / Tijuana scenario or the real Israel / Palestine scenario, both sides have engaged in so many extra-curricular unproductive activities, trying to find the moral high ground is pointless. The smartest thing to do is to try to go back and find the simplest, clearest, mutually agreed starting point and try to unwind back to that point as quickly as possible. In the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, that starting point would be the pre-1967 borders of Israel which Israel agreed to in 1967, 1973, 1978 (Camp David Accords), a collection of Arab nations agreed to in their 2002 framework proposal, and the Palestinians themselves agreed to via written letter from Arafat to Israeli Prime Minister Rabin in 2003 (including the right of Israel to exist).

That is the essence of Carter's book. Is it "fair" to Israel or the Palestinians? Is it "anti-Israel" or "anti-Palestinian"? I don't know. I don't care. I'm just tired of watching Israelis and Palestinians killing each other using quasi-religious justifications for their actions when a clear solution based upon secular definitions of the territories and peoples involved exists and has been supposedly agreed to by all parties.


#1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1982_Lebanon_War

#2) http://www.mideastweb.org/242.htm

#3) http://www.mideastweb.org/338.htm