Revolution #82, March 18, 2007


Why Is Jimmy Carter Being Attacked – and What Does It Say About the United States, Israel, Bush and The Democrats?

Recently, there has been an uproar of criticism against former President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid—for comparing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people with the white supremacist system of apartheid that once existed in South Africa.

You'd expect Carter to be attacked by the neo-conservative architects of the policy he's criticizing. But even more significant have been the attacks by Democratic Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. Each stated that Carter does not speak for the Democrats. Pelosi added more, saying "Democrats have been steadfast in their support of Israel from its birth, in part because we recognize that to do so is in the national security interests of the United States. We stand with Israel now and we stand with Israel forever." (Forward, January 3, 2007)

And in a further dramatic public attack on Carter, fourteen advisory board members of the prestigious Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia (a liberal foundation established by Carter himself) resigned on January 11 in protest of the book. The New York Times stated that the letter by the resigning members "accuses Mr. Carter of having abandoned his role as a peace broker in the Middle East, and said his statements had proven useful to white supremacists and other anti-Semites."

Israel, Apartheid and the Limits of Carter’s Critique

Carter's critics have howled at his use of the word "apartheid" to describe Israeli actions. "Apartheid" is the name for the system of racial segregation and domination in South Africa. The government was legally run by the whites there, and was an instrument of domination against the black Africans who originally lived in South Africa and who made up the vast majority of the population. The apartheid system legally denied Africans any political rights, and tightly controlled their movements; Africans who resisted, along with white South Africans who supported them, were routinely imprisoned for years and decades and otherwise oppressed, with many being assassinated or murdered in prison. This form of oppression was only ended in 1994, in the face of years of resistance and upheaval by the masses of African people there. (The oppression of the African people has persisted, in new forms, despite the victory over apartheid; but how and why that happened, and what must be done about it, is beyond the scope of this article.)

One look at Israel—at its violent dispossession of the Palestinians who originally lived in Palestine; its violent and repressive control of the West Bank and Gaza territories, including the draconian control on people’s movements and the virtual imprisonment of people in some cities; at the ways in which it insists on its character as a specifically Jewish state and that other countries recognize it as such—all these irresistibly suggest the analogy to apartheid. The fact that Israel actually supported the apartheid regime for many years—and that this support was not only economic, but extended to the police and repressive forces there and even included crucial assistance to South Africa in developing nuclear weapons (!)—only serves to underscore the aptness of the analogy.

Given that, Carter’s criticism is actually rather tame. As he himself points out, he is posing “apartheid” as a possible outcome of current Israeli policies, and not as the very fitting description of the entire Israeli system which it is. Within that framework, Carter's book does speak about some of the apartheid-like oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza: "Utilizing their [Israel's leaders] political and military dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation, and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories." (p. 189) The Israelis are in fact constructing a wall around the West Bank in order to separate and contain the Palestinians. What Palestinians commonly call "the apartheid wall" consists of concrete walls, electrified fences, electric sensors, razor wire, trenches, and watchtowers—across more than 400 miles of Palestinian land in the West Bank. This wall has further isolated many Palestinian towns, separated farmers from their fields, and stolen more land from the Palestinians. Richard Horton, the editor of the highly respected medical journal Lancet, gives a sense of the humanitarian dimension of this suffering in a recent report. Horton details instances of Israeli harassment and even threatened destruction of Palestinian clinics, the bleeding dry of resources for Palestinian health care more generally, and the ways in which Israeli-run “checkpoints and military barriers frequently obstruct women seeking care during critical periods of labor and delivery,” among other things. [“Palestinians: The Crisis in Medical Care,” Richard Horton, New York Review of Books, March 15, 2007]

Discussing Israeli actions in the early 1990s, Carter points out that aspects of the so-called Oslo peace agreements in 1993 that created the Palestinian Authority (a Palestinian administrative apparatus in the West Bank and Gaza that has no state power) led to "…complete Israeli control over every aspect of political, military and economic existence of the Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli settlements permeated the occupied territories, and highways connecting the settlements with one another and with Jerusalem were being rapidly built, with Palestinians prohibited from using or crossing some of the key roads. In addition, more than one hundred permanent Israeli checkpoints obstructed the routes still open to Palestinian traffic, either pedestrian or vehicular." (p. 141) And Carter states that one of the main reasons for Palestinian anger and rebellion against the state of Israel has been the efforts of every Israeli government to find ways to illegally grab more Palestinian land.

But one of Carter's basic premises for what he sees as a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the demand that Palestinians accept Israel's "right to exist within recognized borders." The insistence that the Palestinians must accept the original 1948 theft of the whole of Palestine is far from "even-handed." This puts the blame for the struggle and suffering in Palestine and the Middle East on the Palestinians and other Arab people, while scolding Israeli leaders for doing things that make it more difficult for the Arabs to deliver the submission to Israel that imperialism requires.

Israel: Acting on Behalf of U.S. Imperial Interests

Despite Carter’s pretending to the opposite, Israel is not in fact some totally independent actor in all this. It is armed to the teeth and backed up militarily and economically by the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, without U.S. backing the state of Israel could not survive. The U.S. gives Israel $2 to $3 billion a year in aid, allowing Israel to build up one of the most powerful armies in the world—which includes nuclear weapons. And the U.S. has given tacit, and sometimes open, approval to the half dozen or so Israeli military attacks on surrounding Arab countries over the past 50 years. All this is in line with the fact that the state of Israel was originally installed as a bulwark of first European and later U.S. imperial interests in that part of the world (and even more broadly).

This latter fact, of course—the unjust foundational character of Israel as a settler state enforcing the interests of neocolonial rule in the Middle East and the way in which this is at the heart of the conflict—has been forbidden from the “official discourse” in the U.S.; but it is nonetheless true, even if Jimmy Carter not only refuses to broach it but continues to justify it in his book.

In order to deny this central fact, Carter's book has to go through other glaring contortions of logic. In the beginning of the book, Carter argues that “Until recently, America's leaders were known and expected to exert maximum influence in an objective, nonbiased way to achieve peace in the Middle East.” (p. 16)

This ridiculous assertion is contradicted by reality, some of which Carter himself reports on in the book. For example, in 1982, Israel launched a vicious invasion of Lebanon with the aim of wiping out the military and political structures of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were brutally killed, and Israel subsequently occupied southern Lebanon for the next 18 years. Israel's alliance with right-wing fascist militias in Lebanon resulted in these forces carrying out a horrific massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. Carter says he was troubled by this invasion and he expressed this to some top Israeli leaders. Carter writes, "Back came a disturbing reply from an unimpeachable source in Jerusalem: 'We had a green light from Washington.'"(p. 95)

This one incident, which happened to get leaked to the press, gives a sense of the real nature of the "objective, nonbiased" role of the U.S.!

In sum, Carter is arguing that the blatant strangulation of Palestinian life in the West Bank and Gaza is creating suffering and thus bitter resentment among the Palestinians which then is a problem because it threatens Israel. And he is further arguing that the U.S. should return to an earlier posture in which they would pressure Israel to make some concessions to the Palestinians and at least appear to be working toward a separate Palestinian state—one which would be tightly controlled by Israel (and beyond that, by the U.S.) but which would at least have the outer trappings of sovereignty. This, in Carter’s view, would be a more viable way to maintain Israel’s role and protect U.S. imperial interests overall in the area.

The Logic of the Bush Approach… and the Support of the Democrats

But Carter rightly observes that the Bush regime has abandoned this traditional approach of previous administrations and has refused to provide even the appearance of taking into account Palestinian needs and demands. So one must ask: what accounts for this new approach by Bush? And what does it mean that Carter’s rather tepid criticism has been so roundly attacked by the Democratic political establishment?

First, as to the Bush approach itself and its logic. Bush refused to even speak with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and supported the Israeli army’s virtual siege of Arafat in his West Bank apartment during the last years of his life. He has supported the Israeli use of jet warplanes against Palestinian civilians, the brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its policy of assassinating Palestinian political leaders and activists, and so on down the line.

Today, Israel has become even more essential and central to U.S. plans in the Middle East—especially with Iran as a reactionary theocratic state increasingly challenging the U.S. and rallying anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalist sentiment throughout the region. In comparison with other countries in the region, Israel has a relatively stable social order. While there are social conflicts in Israel, they don't threaten the general consensus, which is based on the original expropriation of the land from the Palestinian people. The Arab regimes in the area such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are all U.S. allies but all face explosive social contradictions that make them unable to act as completely reliable policemen and hitmen for the U.S. This is why only Israel is uniquely capable of playing the role of a military fortress and a launching pad for strikes against Middle Eastern countries.

Put it this way: in a situation that is highly volatile and highly risky for U.S. imperial interests, Israel exists as a bedrock outpost of imperialism.

Given that context, the criticism in Jimmy Carter's book of Israel and the U.S. support it enjoys is not the kind of talk the Bush regime wants people to engage in at this crucial point in history. The prevailing core of the U.S. ruling class are deadly serious about their juggernaut and it is quite revealing that even a respected “member of the club” like Carter who mildly dissents or offers amendments can be cast as an anti-Jewish villain.

But it is the way in which the top Democrats have not only joined in, but in some ways “taken the lead” in this criticism of Carter that is noteworthy. This shows that in this instance the Bush regime speaks for a much broader layer of imperialists than the core now at the height of power. Any questioning of the right of Israel to act without restraint is now viewed by almost all in the U.S. ruling class as a threatening counter-rhythm to the U.S. drumbeat of continued war for empire. Any implication, whether intended or not, that there might be something unjust at the foundation of Israel—and the very use of the word “apartheid” by Carter, no matter how he might have intended to limit its relevance, couldn’t help but raise that question—well, anything like that is out of bounds and anyone who “goes there” finds that out the hard way. The fact that the object of the lesson is a former U.S. president who had been an architect of American policy in the Middle East and godfathered the 1978 Egypt/Israel peace treaty, only underscores the point.

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