Mideast peace, Arab Spring and looming US elections

Sabah Hasmamou, Tuesday 30 Oct 2012

In exclusive interview with Ahram Online, former US president Jimmy Carter reflects on apparent demise of two-state solution, ongoing 'Arab Spring' and domestic economic policies favouring America's rich

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (Photo: Reuters)

Ahram Online: You said in a recent interview that Israel 'never' keeps its promises regarding the rights of Palestinians. Were there any changes on the ground that prompted the so-called 'Elders' to visit the region to attempt to restart peace talks?

Jimmy Carter: We came to this region, to Egypt, because we see the importance of Egypt in many areas of life, not just regarding the Palestinian issue. But I think, at this point in the history of the peace process, we feel that this is the last phase of Israel abandoning the two-state commitment that was made at Camp David and upheld by all previous [Israeli] prime ministers, from Menachem Begin to Olmert, Barak and Perez.

All of them said they wanted a two-state solution, and they were negotiating on behalf of that premise – that the 1967 borders would prevail, aside from minor negotiating changes. I believe Netanyahu is abandoning that.

For the first time in history, he is now intending to confiscate – to occupy and colonise – the West Bank and as much of East Jerusalem as possible. So that's the change.

AO: Is there any hope on the horizon for a viable settlement?

JC: Yes. I think the hope comes from the world understanding that the [concept of the] two-state solution based on 1967 borders, which is the foundation of UN Resolution 242, and the stance of the US and Europe, is ending. That's one change.

The other hope would be if the Palestinians could finally come together as a united voice, as in the past. Hamas and Fatah have not been able to negotiate to achieve a united government, or [agree on] how to hold elections together. That's why we came to Egypt.

We hope that President Morsi will take the initiative and be a strong mediator, and that religious leaders – like the grand imam of Al-Azhar – also play a role. This is a great hope. The Palestinians need to be united.

So, the world recognises what Israel is doing, and the Palestinians come together – two reasons for hope.

AO: Is it possible to entertain such hope in the face of Israeli military superiority?

JC: Militarily, Israel is the dominant force in the Middle East. There is no other country that can challenge Israel militarily. But as far as diplomacy is concerned, I think that Egypt in the future will be the preeminent leader in the peace process.

This opportunity emerged last year, because, in the past, President Mubarak basically did whatever Tel Aviv and Washington wanted him to do. I think now there is a much greater chance that President Morsi will try to enforce the Camp David Accords.

There are two things: the Camp David Accords and the Peace Treaty. The Camp David Accords state that Israel and Egypt are at peace and that the Palestinians should be accorded their rights. The treaty just dealt with peace between Israel and Egypt.

Concerning the treaty between Israel and Egypt, it is valuable to both countries. I don't believe either side would like to go back to war.

AO: Although the Egyptian leadership has confirmed Egypt's respect for its international obligations, there are growing demands for the amendment of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, particularly in light of the occasional killing of Egyptian military personnel by Israeli forces.

JC: It can be amended. I'm not speaking for President Morsi, but I can tell you that he and I have discussed this, and some changes in the treaty might be acceptable to Israel – particularly regarding the extent of Egypt's military presence in Sinai.

When I negotiated the treaty with [late Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat, he said: 'We will stay out of Sinai with heavy military equipment, and we'll stay a long distance from the border with Israel, because we don't want to go back to war.'

But now, I think, with the threat of terrorism in Sinai, Israel sees that it might have to allow Egypt to step up its military presence, just to curb terrorism that might endanger Israel through Gaza. 

AO: Would Israeli leaders agree to this change to the status quo?

JC: I think this is something that Israel and Egypt might see as a common benefit, because Israel can't police Sinai – but it does want to see Egypt more able to maintain order in Sinai.

AO: As for the Arab Spring, many Egyptians were confused to see the West support the popular uprisings after backing the leaders the uprisings toppled. Also, what would happen if Egypt, Tunisia and Libya reconstituted themselves as strong countries? Wouldn't that threaten Israeli dominance? You have said in the past that you helped remove the Egyptian military threat to Israel, is that correct?

JC: First of all, I don't see any military threat to Israel or Egypt now; that threat is gone. My organisation, the Carter Center, monitored the elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. We know these countries and we guess that the basic change that happened in the entire region, as it pertains to the future peace, has been the emergence of a government in Egypt that will emphasise Palestinian rights.

I think Egypt is destined for future greatness, and I noticed in the last two or three days the major news story has been that Egypt and Turkey have developed a very close friendship. This is a new and wonderful development.

Two years ago, the close relationship was Israel and Turkey, but then Israel attacked the ship going to Gaza [the Mavi Marmara] and never apologised. So I see benefits coming from the 'Arab awakening.' I don't use the word 'Spring' because spring is but one part of the year.

One more thing: I think people throughout the Middle East exaggerate the power of the United States, including its power over Israel. We can't come here and tell President Morsi what to do. We can't go to Israel and tell Prime Minster Netanyahu what to do. Nobody can come to Washington and tell President Obama what to do.

A lot of people in Egypt think the United States is telling Netanyahu to occupy the West Bank, or that if we told him, "Don't occupy the West Bank," then Netanyahu would withdraw. It's not like that.

AO: Then how can we force peace?

JC: Well, I forced peace in a way. But I had two courageous men in Camp David with me, both of whom would displease some of their supporters by saying, 'Let's compromise.'

AO: What can we do in the absence of such 'courageous men'?

JC: We can't underestimate the quality of the man here [in Egypt]. I think President Morsi is a good man, as was Sadat. I think President Obama is a good man, as I was. But circumstances also play a role.

AO: Would the West be happy to see Egypt stronger militarily?

JC: Strong enough to protect itself, yes. And I think we want to see every country able to protect itself. That includes China and Japan, South Korea and Israel and Europe.

I think the answer to your question is, 'Yes, we want Egypt to be stronger militarily,' but not to have the military dominating a civilian government.

AO: What are the strongest indications, both positive and negative, currently coming out of the region?

JC: The most positive has been that the Egyptian people have great courage, particularly young people, and have demanded freedom and democracy.

On the negative, I think it's not Egypt's fault, but, economically, Egypt has suffered in the face of new business that wanted to come and create investment but was not willing to do so, and through the time of turmoil and change when tourists did not feel safe to come here.

But I think once Egypt is more stable and has a constitution based on human rights and freedom, and, I would say, a secular government, I think the investment and tourism will come.

AO: What do you see as the main differences between a second-term Obama and Mitt Romney concerning the Middle East?

JC: I think as far as the peace process is concerned, Obama will be much better. Romney is in complete alliance with Netanyahu.

Obama spelt out his position here in Cairo when he made the famous speech, and also six months later when he said that 1967 borders should be the basis for peace, modified only by mutual negotiations.

Between the two, I think Obama is better for Palestinian rights, a good relationship with Egypt and for peace in the region.

AO: Watching Wall Street bankers move into the US government, some believe the US itself needs a 'Spring' of its own. Comments?

JC: I don't deny that. I'm a professor emeritus. I gave a lecture last week to a large crowd and said our country, the United States, has been the most unequal country in the rich world. But this has been brought about by various factors; it's very complicated.

When I left office and President Reagan came in, he was for rich people in terms of taxation. More recently, the US Supreme Court, which is heavily dominated by Republicans – 5-4 at least – ruled that corporations, even those owned by foreigners, can give unlimited money to any campaign.

That has distorted the balance of rights between the ordinary working family and the rich in our country. I hope that changes.

AO: Would you like to see a revolution in the US?

JC: A military revolution, no. But eventually, in democracy, the people will prevail, because every four years we make a decision about who will be the president, and every two years about who will be the members of Congress.

In democracies, when you make mistakes, the people can correct the mistakes. Sometimes not quick enough, but we have to be patient and see that – ultimately – the people will decide.

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