Former President Jimmy Carter Misrepresents Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in The New York Times

An Op-Ed by Jimmy Carter that appeared on page one of The International New York Times, as well as the New York edition of the paper, and online, misrepresents United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, the status of disputed land, and Israeli military rule in the West Bank (“Jimmy Carter: America Must Recognize Palestine”). Undermining longstanding U.S. policy, as well as the core principle of Resolution 242, Carter calls on the outgoing Obama administration to recognize the state of Palestine and for the Security Council to pass a resolution imposing terms for resolving the conflict.

Wrong on Military Rule, Population

Carter errs on military rule in the West Bank, stating: “Over 4.5 million Palestinians live in these occupied territories, but are not citizens of Israel. Most live under Israeli military rule, and do not vote in Israel’s national elections.” (Emphasis added.)

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are some 2.9 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. In addition, there are just over 300,000 Arabs living in Jerusalem, totaling approximately 3.2 million Arabs residing in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Of the West Bank Arabs, the vast majority live in Area A, which is under the authority of Palestinian security forces, not Israeli military rule. The only way for Carter to have reached the figure of over 4.5 million Palestinians was to include the 1.85 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, which has not been occupied by Israel in over a decade. And, of course, Gaza’s Palestinians live under Hamas’ iron grip; they most definitely are not living under Israeli military rule.

Given that the vast majority of Palestinians live under Palestinian military and civilian rule, as opposed to Israeli rule, it is no wonder that they don’t have a vote in Israel’s national elections. When Palestinian elections take place (an event now some seven years overdue) Palestinians will get a vote in their own government.

Carter quotes selectively from U.N. Resolution 242, the backbone of all Arab-Israeli negotiations since 1967, wrongly implying throughout his piece that Israel is required to withdraw fully to the pre-1967 lines, and that Israeli settlements beyond those lines are “illegal.” He writes:

The key words of that resolution were “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every state in the area can live in security,” and the “withdrawal of Israel [sic] armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

There are, however, several key aspects of the resolution that President Carter ignores because they address Arab responsibilities, which would belie his entire premise. Those include:

  • A call for “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” against Israel by its Arab neighbors;

  • Acknowledgement of the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries” (emphasis added; Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries were neither secure nor recognized);

  • A “just settlement of the refugee problem” (emphasis added; intentionally written to encompass Jewish refugees from Arab lands as well as the smaller number of Palestinian refugees from what became Israel).

“Illegal Settlements”: Carter Departs from U.S. Policy

In a departure from decades-old American policy, President Carter unequivocally refers to Israeli settlements as “illegal,” as if this was the ruling of an incontrovertible law. He writes that “in 2009, at the beginning of his first administration, Mr. Obama reaffirmed the crucial elements of the Camp David agreement and Resolution 242 by calling for a complete freeze on the building of settlements, constructed illegally by Israel on Palestinian territory.”

Carter also calls for a Security Council resolution which, he said, “should reaffirm the illegality of all Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders.”

Obama’s administration, however, like all U.S. administrations that followed Carter’s, does not view Israeli settlement construction as “illegal.” Since the Reagan administration, which explicitly said it did not believe the settlements were illegal, U.S. administrations have instead characterized the settlements as an obstacle to peace and illegitimate. The current U.S. government, and numerous preceding American administrations, have not characterized the settlements as “illegal,” a fact that the Associated Press clarified in an important correction earlier this month.

The Carter administration had held that settlements were illegal, relying on the opinion of its legal advisor Herbert Hansell, who in turn quoted the prominent authority on jurisprudence and international law, Professor Julius Stone, from his 1959 analysis “Legal Controls of International Conflict.” It is noteworthy, however, that in writing about the specific legal aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1980, Professor Stone maintained that the effort to designate Israeli settlements as illegal was, in fact, a “subversion. . . of basic international law principles.”

Carter Predetermines “Palestinian Territory”

Although the status of West Bank land upon which Israeli settlements sit is disputed, and although its final determination pends on a negotiated agreement between the two sides, Carter prejudges the resolution, calling the land “Palestinian territory.” (He refers to “the building of settlements, constructed illegally by Israel on Palestinian territory.”)

While he clings to Resolution 242 to substantiate his claim that the land upon which Israeli settlements sit is “Palestinian territory,” the resolution does no such thing. The resolution famously calls for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” and not “the territories,” because the drafters did not expect Israel to withdraw from all of the territories because they did not consider those lines to be defensible. As Lord Caradon, chief architect of the resolution, said:

It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers of eac
h side happened to be on the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them.

President Carter previously misrepresented the facts concerning U.N. Resolution 242, as well as other aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in The International Herald Tribune, the predecessor to The International New York Times, and in his error-ridden book Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid.

Who is Imposing a One-State Reality?

Ignoring Palestinian responsibility and rejectionism, Carter charges that Israel is imposing a one-state reality on itself and the Palestinian people. The Palestinian leadership, first President Arafat and then President Mahmoud Abbas, has rejected every proposal to resolve the conflict and set borders, from Camp David, to the Taba talks and later the Olmert proposal. Though Carter quoted from President Obama’s May 2011 statement about the conflict, he skipped over this segment of the outgoing President’s remarks:

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist. . . .

What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows — a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

Critics of an externally imposed peace process argue that it is doomed to failure particular because of the false assumptions upon which it rests, foremost among which is blaming the lack of peace entirely on Israel while ignoring Palestinian responsibility.  Dr. Eran Lerman of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies points out that:

By advocating coercive pressure on Israel, the would-be “peacemakers” make peace impossible. For any Palestinian leader (particularly a weak and hesitant one), an imposed solution is a painless alternative to the difficult business of negotiating a compromise. Even the hint of such a possibility is enough to persuade Palestinian policymakers that it is better to cast their hopes on international intervention than accept a negotiated outcome.