WASHINGTON - Before George Mitchell departed last week for the Middle East on his inaugural mission, America’s newest special envoy received a present via overnight mail from Jimmy Carter - a copy of Carter’s new book, “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work.”
Carter’s newly published book dissects the troubled history of peace talks, including his own landmark efforts nearly 30 years ago. This book thus far has avoided the controversy triggered by his last book, in 2006, when pro-Israel interests expressed outrage at the title, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
Despite the recent fighting in Gaza, Carter argues that the time couldn’t be better to pursue peace. In a recent conversation with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the 39th president talked about his book, about growing up in the Great Depression and about recollections of St. Louis.
Question: Has the recent fighting between the Israelis and Hamas made peace any more elusive?
Carter: I would say that in balance, it may be an expeditious factor in bringing about resolution to the issues. Europe might be more inclined to be involved in the process right now. I think the Israelis are beginning to realize more that they are moving toward a one-state solution, which would be a catastrophe for Israel. I think the most important thing is that we’ve got a new president in the White House. He promised me during the campaign that he would start working on Mideast peace on his first day in the White House, and he kept that promise.
Q: Some say that the U.S. should put more pressure on Israel.
Carter: I don’t think pressure on Israel would be the right way to say it. Some of the Jewish support groups in America have already condemned George Mitchell for being neutral or balanced. There’s no way to have a peace agreement unless the mediator or negotiator looks at both sides from an equal basis. That doesn’t mean we would ever abandon our commitment to Israel’s security and peace.
Q: Hasn’t the two-state solution that you propose in your book been on the table for years?
Carter: That’s correct. I added a few embellishments. I advocate the modification of the ‘67 borders to let about half of the Israeli stay in Palestine. I added another factor, a peacekeeping force to be included in the West Bank only.
Q: Did the negative reactions to your 2006 book surprise you?
Carter: No. When I wrote the book. I intentionally chose that title to be provocative. There hadn’t been a single day of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in 5 ½ years. I wanted to precipitate a debate and stimulate some interest by our government in peace. The only thing that surprised me was the ad hominem attacks on me personally. I was alleged to be an anti-Semite, senile and a plagiarist.
Q: What role do you see yourself playing in coming months?
Carter: No official role. I just represent the Carter Center. I’m not a mediator or a negotiator. I don’t want to be one. I have written some editorials and two books, and I will continue to express my opinions. I have full confidence in George Mitchell.
Q: How did you inscribe the book you sent him?
Carter: With great admiration and encouragement. I’ve known George Mitchell since he was a young upstart in politics. I appointed him U.S. attorney in Maine.
Q: In another of your books, “An Hour Before Daylight,” you wrote about your Depression-era boyhood. Are the comparisons to the Depression era we’re hearing warranted?
Carter: Nobody should equate the two. In the Great Depression in which I grew up and remember vividly, unemployment was over 25 percent, and over 35 percent where I lived. A grown man would work all day, 16 hours, for a dollar. I remember hundreds of people walking by, people who had come down from the North just to get warm. They would come to our house as beggars even though they might have a college education. People didn’t have money. They bartered; they’d trade eggs or pigs. It was just completely different.
Q: What are some of your memories of St. Louis?
Carter: The most vivid memory I have from St. Louis occurred long before I was president. My mother and father were fanatical baseball fans. In lay-by time, waiting for crops of peanuts, cotton and corn to harvest, we would go to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play. As far as Missouri, it’s the home of my favorite president in my life, Harry Truman.