When this book came out last year, there was a lot of controversy. Some people said it was sloppy. Some folks said it was anti-Semitic. Several Carter Center employees resigned. I heartily subscribe to the belief that the Palestinians get a raw deal. There is periodic unacceptable violence against Israelis. Comparatively speaking though, Israel’s citizens live in peace and security compared to the Palestinians. That hasn’t always been the case. Through the 1970s, Israel fought multiple wars against its Arab neighbors, winning all of them. But winning doesn’t mean lack of danger. Attacks since then have been sporadic and perpetrated by insurgent groups rather than by state actors. At the risk of further reinforcing my own beliefs rather than test and confront them, I picked up the book because I had to know just what was so bad about the book.
If you are uninformed about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the bulk of this book will be of use to you. Carter covers the history of governments and people involved, and touches on some of the personalities. All of this is filtered through the lens of his personal experience and contacts. These are numerous because he is a former President of the U.S. He included a lot of tidbits about things I did not know. For instance, I had read that Yassir Arafat had rejected a very good peace proposal put forward by Ehud Barak in 2000. However, according to Carter, the proposal was actually from Bill Clinton, not Barak. In addition, Barak, while not rejecting the proposal had 20 pages of reservations. Yet, it was Arafat who was portrayed in the media as blocking the proposal.
Another item about which I was unaware is Israeli conditions on the
Roadmap peace proposal that has been the lynchpin of George W. Bush’s limited diplomacy regarding the conflict. According to Carter, the Palestinians have accepted the proposal. Israel has accepted it, but with 14 reservations and changes that gut it. Carter includes the statement of these changes in an appendix.
Ultimately though, I don’t know how much weight to put on any of this. Carter states that land-for-peace is the only possible operative solution to the conflict. There is so much well-placed mistrust on both sides that I don’t know if either side can really believe it will work. Israel can’t trust that Palestinian violence will drop to something acceptable. Palestinians can’t trust that Israel will allow them a viable state. The alternative
solutions suck in major ways. Annexing the territories and creating a single state will put Arabs in a near majority and Israel doesn’t want that. Containing the territories in bantustans as they are currently doing is going to be a humanitarian nightmare and eventually Israel will be completely isolated by the
civilized nations. Neither will they receive much support for expelling the Palestinians to Jordan, Eqypt, Syrian, and Lebanon. There aren’t really any other options.
I didn’t find the book to be particularly weighty or studied. There actually isn’t much that’s controversial in the text. No one denies that the Palestinians have a rough time. What is in dispute is whether or not each side’s actions are justified. Carter doesn’t delve into that. About the only thing controversial is that he labels the situation as akin to South Africa’s reviled apartheid system. He isn’t the first. It’s only noteworthy because he’s a Nobel Peace laureate and a former President, which gives extra oomph to the characterization.
In any case, unless you are a Middle East news and opinion junkie, I would skip the book. It isn’t bad. Quite good in fact. Just repetitive of the current news. You won’t find the controversy in the book that the controversy in the news implied. You’ll be just as informed about that if you don’t read it. There’s some value in the detail Carter provides on the various negotiations, but I’m not sure it will even cause anyone to question their assumptions or conclusions.