Jimmy Carter to Haaretz: Recent Cairo Protests Threaten Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty

Former U.S. president says Camp David Accords he helped forge contained a basis for Palestinian autonomy, and if that doesn't exist, it's due to Israel's stubbornness.

More than three decades after he fostered the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, this week Jimmy Carter watched a young Egyptian take down Israel's flag from the embassy in Cairo. Assuming there are no last-minute surprises, on September 20 - three days after the 33rd anniversary of the Camp David Accords - America's 39th president will raise a glass to toast the UN General Assembly's recognition of a Palestinian state based on Israel's 1967 borders.

In his last book, "White House Diary" (2010 ), the former president upbraids his Democratic successors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for their inaction as Israel accelerated settlement construction. In an earlier book, "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid," Carter proposed a framework resembling the formula outlined by Obama in his speech in May: Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders with territory swaps, a Palestinian right of return only to the state of Palestine, and financial compensation for the refugees.

camp david - Getty Images - August 26 2011
Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that negotiations with the Palestinians should be deferred until Egypt's political direction becomes clear. Isn't there something cogent in the claim, made by right-wingers in Israel, that the hostility displayed by Egypt's public toward Israel, and the political convulsions in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, illustrate that forging peace with dictators is dangerous?

Carter: "[Anwar] Sadat was a dictator? [Hosni] Mubarak was a dictator? The agreement signed with Sadat was one of the most important and stable accords that were ever negotiated. I believe that an agreement signed with a dictator can be honored, and I am convinced that the peoples of Egypt and Israel and their leaders understand the importance of the peace agreement, and are determined to preserve it. There is absolutely no cause for anyone to regret it.

"At the same time, I don't criticize Netanyahu's cautiousness. Were I to be prime minister, I too would be careful. But were I to be an Israeli, I would be happy to see other democracies arise around me, and not states that are governed by dictators who are liable to want to destroy my country. I would extend a hand of friendship, and prove that liberty and democracy can take effect among the Palestinians, as it does with the Israelis. I always viewed Israel as a champion of democracy and freedom, and any time another country chooses these goals, I support it."

What did you feel when you heard the news about the incident in Sinai [last week], and saw the young Egyptian take down the flag from Israel's embassy in Cairo?

"I am very concerned at the demonstration of violence and the breakdown in the peace agreement with Egypt that has been threatened in last days, but I believe that leaderships in both Israel and in Egypt want to see the peace treaty preserved.

"I think it's an indication of a change of attitude among the leadership in Egypt. There were two different agreements that I negotiated 30 years ago: the first was the Camp David Accords that agreed on autonomy for the Palestinians, withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian land, and the enforcement of UN Resolution 242, which has been largely ignored by the Israelis until now.

"I think because of Mubarak's willingness to maintain the peace agreement with Israel [the second agreement], the Palestinian issue was not treated as though it was important. But the people of Egypt have always believed that the treatment of Palestinians was more important than Mubarak did, and now they are putting pressure on the new government to demand that Israel accept its responsibilities under the Camp David Accords."

Doesn't the United States, which oversaw the Camp David Accords, not also bear responsibility?

"I finished my term, and my successors in the White House did not attribute sufficient importance to encouraging Israel to fulfill all parts of the agreements. I don't think that the United States has right now a practical role in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. This gap has been partially filled by Egyptian leaders and other leaders, and by the Palestinian initiative to ask for recognition at the United Nations. The United States must move forward, and propose now the staging of negotiations based on Obama's remarks: Resolution 242 and the 1967 borders. If that doesn't occur, there will be the UN vote."

And then President Obama will cast a veto in the Security Council, and take the sting out of the whole matter.

"I assume that the United States will cast a veto in the Security Council, but that will not prevent a vote in the General Assembly. That's not much, but it's something. I would prefer it if the United States were to vote in favor of recognizing the Palestinian state; but I don't think that will happen. It appears that at least 130 states will vote in the General Assembly in favor of the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. No doubt, that will change the attitude of many people, and I hope that the Palestinians view it as just one step in a long process, and that they continue with a policy of nonviolence in their struggle to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I want to see peace between Israel and Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, with all fundamental human rights of residents of the region honored."

Meeting with Meshal

In January 2006, Carter served as head of a team of international observers who monitored the elections in the territories. In December 2008, shortly before the Israel Defense Forces' Operation Cast Lead, he met in Damascus with Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas' political bureau. Carter then told Haaretz that the Israelis rejected Meshal's proposal for a cease-fire, and he accused Israel of incarcerating inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and of cultivating resentment that transformed into violence.

Does the Carter Center intend to monitor upcoming elections in the territories?

"The Palestinians have invited us to monitor the next elections in Palestine, if and when they are held. But, before then, we have to see what happens to the rapprochement agreement, which has recently encountered difficulties. Unfortunately, the reconciliation agreement did not bring about much progress, due to the opposition shown by Israel and the U.S. I discussed with the White House and the State Department the possibility of recognizing the reconciliation, hoping that the United States would support it. Should things unfold as they are supposed to, and they work out an agreement to hold elections, the Carter Center will assist them. We will also monitor the elections in Tunisia, but Egypt decided not to allow overseas observers to monitor balloting in that country."

While we are talking, thousands in Jerusalem are applauding the newscaster-commentator Glenn Beck, who has come here as the head of a group of Christian Zionists who want to express support for Israel. As a believing Christian, what do you think about this [Christian-Israel] alliance?

"I'm not among Glenn Beck's admirers, and I don't know what, exactly, he represents. Most moderate people in the U.S. relate to him as a joke. I have no doubt that Israel has become increasingly isolated. I see a growing number of governments from South America that support the Palestinians' position, and I see similar feelings in Europe and I hear about this from colleagues in the Elders organization [a group of former world leaders which works to promote peace around the world]. More and more countries display genuine concern about the plight of the Palestinians. I don't think that this was the situation two years ago, when Netanyahu took office. In my opinion, his rigid policy and his plan of expansion caused many people to have doubts about Israel's policy."

Had I told you 33 years ago that in the year 2011, an Israeli journalist would ask you about your opinion of the occupation in the territories, you would have thought that the person was deluded.

"I imagine that I would have asked him which occupation is in question, and that I would be happy to see Israel and the Palestinians living side by side as two sovereign countries. Nobody will be happier than I, should Israel withdraw its military and political presence from Palestine, and implement Resolution 242, as it agreed to do at Camp David. You should remember that the agreement was approved in writing by Menachem Begin, and then by the Knesset. The crucial issue is that Israel wants to retain a major portion of Palestinian land."

A year ago, you managed to persuade the Communist regime in North Korea to grant a special pardon to the American citizen Aijalon Gomes. You've also taken part in efforts to free Gilad Shalit. Do you have anything to say about those efforts?

"One of my prayers is to see Gilad Shalit free. Personally I haven't been there in the last four or five months, I haven't been in contact with them recently. Hamas' leadership knows my goal is to see Shalit set free, and also to see that the several thousand Palestinian prisoners held in Israel also go free as well."