I was in Damascus when President Barack Obama made his historic speech in Cairo, which raised high hopes among the more optimistic Israelis and Palestinians, who recognize that his insistence on a total freeze of settlement expansion is the key to any acceptable peace agreement or any positive responses toward Israel from Arab nations.
Late last month I traveled to the region with a group of “Elders,” including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Three of us had previously visited Gaza, which is now a walled-in ghetto inhabited by 1.6 million Palestinians, 1.1 million of whom are refugees from Israel and the West Bank and receive basic humanitarian assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Israel prevents any cement, lumber, seeds, fertilizer and hundreds of other needed materials from entering through Gaza’s gates. Some additional goods from Egypt reach Gaza through underground tunnels. Gazans cannot produce their own food nor repair schools, hospitals, business establishments or the 50,000 homes that were destroyed or heavily damaged by Israel’s assault last January.
We found a growing sense of concern and despair among those who observe, as we did, that settlement expansion is continuing apace, rapidly encroaching into Palestinian villages. There are more than 200 of these settlements in the West Bank.
An even more disturbing expansion is taking place in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Three months ago I visited a family who had lived for four generations in their small, recently condemned home. They were laboring to destroy it themselves to avoid much higher costs if Israeli contractors carried out the demolition order. On Aug. 27, we Elders took a gift of food to 18 members of the Hanoun family, recently evicted from their home of 65 years. The Hanouns, including six children, are living on the street, while Israeli settlers have moved into their confiscated dwelling.
Increasingly desperate Palestinians see little prospect of their plight being alleviated; political, business and academic leaders are making contingency plans should Obama’s efforts fail.
We saw interest in a call by Javier Solana, secretary general of the Council of the European Union, for the U.N. to endorse the two-state solution, which already has the firm commitment of the U.S. government and the other members of the “Quartet” (Russia and the United Nations). Solana proposes that the U.N. recognize the pre-1967 border between Israel and Palestine, and deal with the fate of Palestinian refugees and how Jerusalem would be shared. Palestine would become a full U.N. member and enjoy diplomatic relations with other nations. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad described to us his unilateral plan for Palestine to become an independent state.
A more likely alternative to the present debacle is one state, which is obviously the goal of Israeli leaders who insist on colonizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A majority of the Palestinian leaders with whom we met are seriously considering acceptance of one state, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. By renouncing the dream of an independent Palestine, they would become fellow citizens with their Jewish neighbors and then demand equal rights within a democracy.
They are aware of demographic trends. Non-Jews are already a slight majority of total citizens in this area, and within a few years Arabs will constitute a majority.
Just south of Jerusalem, the Palestinian residents of Wadi Fukin and the nearby Israeli villagers of Tzur Hadassah are working together closely to protect their small shared valley from the ravages of rock spill, sewage and further loss of land from a huge settlement on the cliff above, where 26,000 Israelis are rapidly expanding their confiscated area.
There are 25 similar cross-border partnerships. The best alternative for the future is a negotiated peace agreement, so that the example of Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah can prevail along a peaceful border between two sovereign nations.
Jimmy Carter of Plains was the 39th president and founder of The Carter Center in Atlanta.
NO. The key to peace is an end to terrorism and extremism.
As with most of former President Jimmy Carter’s recent statements about Israel and the Palestinians, instead of facts we get vignettes from recent Carter travels. And while he finds “a growing sense of concern and despair” among “increasingly desperate” Palestinians, polls do not sustain this view. The most recent survey by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki shows “considerable improvement in public perception of personal and family security and safety in the West Bank and a noticeable decrease in public perception of the existence of corruption.”
This does not sound like despair. In fact, positive views of personal and family safety and security in the West Bank stood at 25 percent four years ago, 35 percent two years ago and 43 percent a year ago, and they have risen to 58 percent in the past year, Shikaki reports. There are other ways to measure quality of life in the West Bank: The IMF recently stated that “macroeconomic conditions in the West Bank have improved” largely because “Israeli restrictions on internal trade and the passage of people have been relaxed.”
Carter’s efforts to portray life among the Palestinians as unbearable and getting worse are belied by data. His efforts to blame Israel for all the region’s problems are equally unpersuasive, and the best example is Gaza. Carter says that Gaza is a “walled-in ghetto” and that “Israel prevents any cement, lumber, seeds, fertilizer and hundreds of other needed materials from entering through Gaza’s gates.” But Gaza is not an enclave; it has a border with Egypt. Every commodity that Carter says is needed can be supplied by Egypt, a point he overlooks in his efforts to blame Palestinian problems exclusively on the Jewish state.
Similarly, he says that “[s]ome additional goods from Egypt reach Gaza through underground tunnels,” phrasing that suggests the “additional goods” may help reduce shortages. In fact, they include missiles and rockets, thousands of which have been fired into Israel since its troops left Gaza in 2005. While Carter warns that a Palestinian “civil rights struggle” is in the offing, he says nothing about Palestinian violence — in which Palestinian terrorist groups continue to attack Israel and where all of Gaza is, of course, in the hands of one such group, Hamas.
Carter claims that the expansion of Israeli settlements is “rapidly” taking Palestinian land. Yet four years ago Israel gave up the Gaza Strip and all the settlements there (plus four small West Bank settlements); moreover, Carter presents no data suggesting that Israel’s West Bank settlements are actually expanding physically. Their population is growing, but new construction is almost all “up and in,” meaning that the impact on Palestinians is limited — and that the picture Carter paints of a rapidly disappearing Palestine is inaccurate.
Most inaccurate of all, and most bizarre, is Carter’s claim that “a total freeze of settlement expansion is the key” to a peace agreement. Not a halt to terrorism, not the building of Palestinian institutions, not the rule of law in the West Bank, not the end of Hamas rule in Gaza — no, the sole “key” is Israeli settlements.
Such a conclusion fits with Carter’s general approach, in which there are no real Palestinians, just victims of Israel. The century of struggle between moderate and radical Palestinians, and the victories of terrorists from Haj Amin al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat, are forgotten; the Hamas coup in Gaza is unmentioned; indeed the words “Hamas” and “terrorism” do not appear in Carter’s column. Instead of appealing for support for the serious and practical work of institution-building that the Palestinian Authority has begun, Carter fantasizes about a “nonviolent civil rights struggle” that bears no relationship to the terrorist violence that has plagued Palestinian society, and killed Israelis, for decades. Carter’s portrait demonizes Israelis and, not coincidentally, it infantilizes Palestinians, who are accorded no real responsibility for their fate.
If this is “the Elders’ view of the Middle East,” we and our friends in that region are fortunate that this group of former officials is no longer in power.
Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.