Washington - Jimmy Carter’s newest efforts to repair relations with the Jewish community were rebuffed not once but twice last week — and at the very highest levels.
Carter’s first outreach effort came in an invitation to Jewish groups to discuss ways that the former president could help make the upcoming Middle East peace conference a success. While Carter invited most of the major Jewish organizations, the event was only attended by representatives of the Reform movement and by several smaller dovish Jewish groups.
“I didn’t want to be used,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, one of the leaders who turned down Carter’s invitation. “I didn’t think anything constructive could come out of the meeting, except for him being able to say he met with Jewish leaders.”
Carter has encountered similar difficulties in reaching out to Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A closed-door meeting he held with Jewish members of Congress turned into a passionate rebuke of the former president’s views on Israel and the Middle East.
“He left the room less happy than Lincoln was when he left the Ford Theatre,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat who attended the meeting.
Carter has had strained relations with much of the organized Jewish community since the publication of his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” and his ensuing remarks regarding the Jewish lobby’s influence on American foreign policy. The reception he received last week suggests that the resentment is still strong and that it may pose an obstacle for him as he attempts to offer his help in brokering peace in the Middle East.
His renewed appeal is part of his work with a group known as The Elders. Founded by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela last summer, The Elders consists of 13 senior statesmen who attempt to use their international clout and their experience to deal with the world’s most pressing conflicts. Along with Carter, members include Desmond Tutu, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. The group’s first mission was to Darfur, and it is now looking into taking an active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The invitation to Jewish organizations, sent out by Elders liaison Mickey Bergman, stated that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss ways in which The Elders can help out with the Middle East peace process.
The invitation was not totally unrewarded. The Wednesday lunchtime meeting was attended by five Jewish members, including the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which was represented by Rabbi David Saperstein. Other groups that sent representatives were Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek V’Shalom and the New Israel Fund. All are strong advocates of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Another participant in the meeting was Tom Dine, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who is also known for his dovish views.
“We did not raise the issue of the book in the meeting; it is old news,” one participant told the Forward.
Another attendant, Brit Tzedek V’Shalom’s new president, Steve Masters, said the atmosphere was good and that he sensed no tension between Carter and the Jewish activists in the room.
“We all recognized that he is one of the only people in the world who were successful in brokering peace between Israelis and Arabs,” Masters said.
A Jewish organizational official speaking under condition of anonymity said that Carter invited “almost all major groups” but most of them turned down the invitation. This decision was criticized by those present.
“I think the refusal of Jewish groups to show up is offensive,” said M.J. Rosenberg, Israel Policy Forum’s policy analysis director, who was in attendance. “It is very unfortunate when a former president invites and people don’t show up.”
It was not clear if the decision not to attend was made by groups separately or was a result of consultations. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, did not return calls from the Forward regarding the meeting with Carter.
Foxman rejects the claim that turning down the invitation was improper.
“I don’t disrespect him,” Foxman said, adding that his reason for not coming to the meeting was Carter’s refusal to apologize for arguing that Jews control the media and academia. “He is entitled not to support Israel, but he is not entitled to come out and fuel antisemitic canards.”
Bergman, who accompanied Carter in his meetings with the Jewish leaders, would not comment on the talks, saying they were “off the record and private.”
Carter’s chilly reception by the Jewish organizations only got worse a few hours later, when he met with Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The event, hosted by California Democrat Tom Lantos, served as a forum for Jewish Democrats to vent their outrage at Carter’s book.
“I told him that the Jewish community, that has great respect for his work around the world, is extremely hurt, disappointed and frustrated from his views and that he cannot serve as an honest broker,” Ackerman said.
A similar message was also voiced by Lantos and three other Jewish lawmakers who attended the meeting: Henry Waxman, Howard Berman and Jane Harman.
The members of Congress told Carter that he needs to apologize, but the former president did not do so.
Another stop during Carter’s day in Washington was at the State Department, where he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss his views on the Middle East. Rice has recently conducted a series of consultations with former administration officials in order to “draw on the historical record and experiences of others,” as described by spokesman Sean McCormack. The consultations included talks with former president Bill Clinton and several of Rice’s predecessors: Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Henry Kissinger.
But a State Department official told the Forward that the meeting with Carter was not part of these consultations.
“She was not seeking advice from him,” the official said, stressing that it was Carter who asked for the meeting and that Rice agreed “out of respect.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman