Learning From Carter

By Theodore R. Mann

Published April 02, 2004, issue of April 02, 2004.
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This past Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. As President Bush wrestles with an appropriate response to escalating Middle East tensions after Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, there is much he can learn from the political courage demonstrated by President Jimmy Carter during those peace negotiations.

A week after the treaty was signed, as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, I joined then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin on a trip to Cairo to celebrate. In our hotel, an Egyptian band played Israeli songs of peace as Egyptians, Israelis, American Jews and even some U.S. officials clapped hands and danced together. The contrast between that gathering and the crowds that demonstrated against Israel last week in Arab capitals could not be starker. While it is naive to hope that a similar joint celebration of peace will happen any time soon, the fact that this one occurred after three wars and thousands of Israeli and Egyptian casualties shows it is possible for even the most bitter Middle East foes to be reconciled.

That would not have happened without the extraordinary intervention of an American president. Neither will a resolution of the war between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Carter was dealt a better hand than our current president when it came to the Middle East. He was given a diplomatic opening when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided in November 1977 to renounce hatred and speak directly to the Israeli people from the rostrum of the Knesset, and when Prime Minister Begin responded positively.

For Carter, playing that hand meant taking political risks in order to protect Sadat from the deadly consequences of making a separate peace with an Israel that still occupied “Arab land.” Sadat’s decision was widely reviled in the Arab world, and his life was in danger. To demonstrate to the Arabs that he and Sadat together were doing more to help the Palestinians than Arab leaders had ever done, Carter pressured Israel publicly in a way no other American president had before.

Indeed, in the months leading up to the negotiation of the Camp David accords in September 1978, and then again in the months leading up to signing of the peace treaty of March 1979, Israel was the target of a brutal campaign of intimidation and criticism by the White House and the State Department. Carter’s public pressure on Israel may have helped produce a treaty, but it did not save President Sadat, who was assassinated two years later. Nor did it help Carter get re-elected in 1980, when American Jews for the first time since the early part of the 20th century did not give a majority of their votes to a Democratic presidential candidate.

During the negotiations, I spoke out repeatedly against the Carter administration’s treatment of Israel, and the tensions between Israel and the United States were personally quite painful to me. At the same time, I marveled at how Carter was personally involved in the negotiations and his refusal to let either Sadat or Begin walk away. In fact, I ended up publicly supporting him in his re-election campaign.

In retrospect, Israel, Egypt and the world are much better off as a result of Carter’s efforts. The peace is obviously less than what we had hoped for, but even a “cold peace” is much better than war. Not a single Israeli soldier has died in battle with Egypt in the past quarter of a century.

President Bush has not had similar diplomatic openings. There is no courageous President Sadat on the Palestinian horizon. Neither side’s leaders are ready to take the bold steps needed to stop the violence. Arafat has been unwilling to stop terrorism. Sharon has done little to strengthen Palestinian moderates who could be an alternative leadership.

On the other hand, President Bush would risk much less politically than Carter did if he acted decisively to bring both parties together and press them to work out their differences. Most American Jewish voters, like most other Americans, favor a two-state solution and endorse steps Israel must take to make that possible, such as evacuating settlements.

Like Carter, President Bush should roll up his sleeves and get personally involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. He should press Palestinian leaders to quash terrorism and anti-Israel incitement, insist that Israel stop settlement expansion, and ensure that Sharon’s proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip does not preclude eventual withdrawal from the West Bank. Would the president succeed in bringing about peace if he pursued such a course? Who knows? But, at a moment when calls for bloody revenge for Sheikh Yassin’s death are drowning out the voices of peace, there could be disastrous consequences if President Bush does not at least try.

Theodore R. Mann, an attorney, is a board member of Israel Policy Forum and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

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