For months, the controversy over former president Jimmy Carter’s book has generally been fueled by bitter criticism from the Jewish community. In recent weeks, however, the debate has shown signs of evolving into a personal clash between the country’s last two Democratic presidents.
Earlier this month, former president Bill Clinton spoke out against Carter’s book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” during an appearance before the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County. “If I were an Israeli I wouldn’t like it, because it’s not factually correct and it’s not fair,” Clinton reportedly said.
This appears to be one of the few times that Clinton has taken a public swipe at the book or spoken out directly against his fellow former president on any matter.
In addition to Clinton’s comments in San Diego, the American Jewish Committee released a letter last week from the former president thanking the group’s executive director, David Harris, for speaking out against the book.
“Thanks so much for your articles about President Carter’s book,” Clinton wrote in a handwritten note dated January 11. “I don’t know where his information (or conclusions) came from, but Dennis Ross has tried to straighten it out, publicly and in two letters to him. At any rate, I’m grateful.”
Clinton appeared to be referring to sections of Carter’s book that denigrate the American-backed land-for-peace final settlement offer that Israel made to the Palestinians in 2000. Ross, who served as Clinton’s envoy to the Middle East, has said publicly that maps he published outlining the Clinton proposal were improperly reprinted, and then mislabeled, by Carter. In doing so, Ross said, Carter wrongly suggested that Israel had not, in fact, offered the Palestinians all of Gaza and roughly 97% of the West Bank, but instead small and isolated islands of Palestinian territory.
In his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” Carter argues that the terms of Clinton’s peace proposal at Camp David in the summer of 2000 were untenable for the Palestinians.
“There was no possibility that any Palestinian leader could accept such terms and survive,” Carter wrote. “But officials statements from Washington and Jerusalem were successful on placing the entire onus for the failure on Yasir Arafat.”
Word of Clinton’s public criticism of Carter comes as the 2008 presidential contenders, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, battle for Jewish support and money.
According to Democratic Party insiders, however, Bill Clinton’s recent remarks might be better understood as a temporary break in what has been a long and icy détente between two former presidents who share Southern roots, Baptist Christian faith and foreign policy legacies largely staked on the Middle East.
“Clinton and Carter have a long and tortured relationship,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington media strategist who served as director of media planning in the Clinton White House. “They have never been close, but they have tried to stay out of each other’s way out of political respect.”
If Clinton was initially reluctant to speak out publicly about Carter’s book — unlike Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean — he has not been silent on the issue in private, according to one of his most important backers in the Orthodox community, Rabbi Menachem Genack.
Genack, who heads the kashruth division of the Orthodox Union and is now serving as a finance committee member on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, told the Forward that Clinton had openly discussed his displeasure with Carter’s book at a New York luncheon for Hillary supporters, held in mid-November. According to Genack, Clinton said that he was at the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “and this notion that this was Israel’s obstinacy and so on completely conflicted with the reality of the negotiations.”
“He was very uncomfortable with the book,” Genack said.
Both Carter and Clinton doggedly pursued Middle East peace deals during their presidencies and have cited their Baptist upbringings as inspiration for seeking reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. But their personal allegiances to slain leaders, and their experiences at the negotiating table, appear to have driven them to different conclusions about where to cast blame for the continuing conflict.
Carter, in describing the historic peace talks at Camp David that culminated in the groundbreaking Israeli-Egyptian peace deal, has portrayed the late former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat as a visionary and heroic statesman who gave his life for peace, and the late former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin as a difficult interlocutor less prepared to transcend his past as an underground leader of Jewish nationalists.
In sharp contrast, Clinton developed a close personal relationship with Yitzhak Rabin before the Israeli prime minister was assassinated. Years later, after marathon talks at Camp David failed to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Clinton blamed the stalemate on Yasser Arafat, essentially casting him as a guerilla leader unable to embrace the role of statesman.
Independent of Middle East politics, some of the underlying tensions between Carter and Clinton go back decades.
In his 2004 autobiography, Clinton said that his failed 1980 bid for re-election as governor of Arkansas was damaged by the decision of President Carter to place 20,000 Cuban refugees at a military installation in the state, after some of the refugees had rioted and broken out of the facility as the National Guard looked on.
While Carter and Clinton have both pursued high-profile humanitarian causes as ex-presidents, and plan to participate in a gathering of progressive Baptists early next year, Clinton has often seemed much closer to former president George H.W. Bush, his partner in raising relief funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and those of the 2004 tsunami. Several political observers told the Forward that Carter’s outspoken political activism since leaving office has caused friction with Clinton and both Bushes.
“There is kind of this tradition that out of respect for the dignity of the office, presidents finish their terms and then sort of… let their successors have their own time at bat,” said Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute who recently published an article in Commentary magazine that is critical of Carter’s conduct as an ex-president. “Every one of Carter’s successors, including Clinton, has resented his meddling.”
Carter publicly opposed the use of force against Iraq in 1990 during the first Bush administration, and personally contacted United Nations member states to urge them not to support the American request for U.N. authorization of military action. In 1994, Carter successfully lobbied President Clinton to allow him to serve as an envoy to North Korea.
Rabinowitz suspects that his former boss decided to break with his “decades-long” approach of avoiding public criticism of Carter because “it all just got to be a bit too much.”
“This wasn’t one misstatement by Carter,” Rabinowitz said. “Needless to say, Carter didn’t let go.”