Former President Jimmy Carter’s new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, provoked an uproar even before its publication. The reason for the controversy was the book’s title more than its content, for it seemed to suggest that the avatar of democracy in the Middle East may be on its way to creating a political order that resembles South Africa’s apartheid model of discrimination and repression, albeit on ethnic-religious rather than racial grounds.

Since the appearance of the book coincided with the recent Congressional elections, leaders of the Democratic Party went into near panic and fell over one another disassociating themselves from Carter’s book and his criticisms of certain Israeli policies. Indeed, the panic was so intense that so independent-minded a man as Howard Dean, chair of the party, who in the past has had the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom of the party’s establishment on a whole range of issues, joined the herd as well.

None of this, of course, is in the least surprising. In the face of overwhelming international criticism of President Bush for his failure to engage in the Middle East peace process and for his unbalanced support of Israel, the Democratic Party’s Congressional leadership has managed to criticize Bush for being too soft on the Palestinians and not sufficiently supportive of Israel. So the criticism of President Carter is noteworthy only for what it reveals about the ignorance of the American political establishment, both Democrat and Republican, on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I would challenge the incoming Democratic chair of the House International Relations Committee, Tom Lantos (not to mention the outgoing chair, Henry Hyde), to identify the author of the following comment, made at the time when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was about to bring Rehavam Ze’evi, head of Israel’s Moledet Party, into his Cabinet. Ze’evi and his party were advocates of “transfer,” a euphemism for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the West Bank and in other parts of “Greater Israel”:

The transfer party’s joining the government is a profound political, moral and social stain, a dangerous infection penetrating [Israel’s] government. Anyone who includes the transfer [party] among the Zionist parties of the coalition is in effect confirming the UN Resolution that says Zionism is racism.

Had an American made such a statement, he would unquestionably have been accused of hostility to the State of Israel, if not anti-Semitism. If the person had been Jewish, he would have been branded a self-hating Jew.

In fact, the author of this statement was Benny Begin, the right-wing son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a Likud “prince” who relentlessly attacked the Labor Party for recognizing the PLO, which he insisted, even after Oslo, was nothing more than a terrorist organization. And the man who was described at the time in the Jerusalem Post as “the most vociferous among the cabinet ministers opposing the appointment, saying it was inconceivable that a man with Ze’evi’s ideology should serve as a minister,” was none other than Ehud Olmert, another Likud prince.

When Olmert, as deputy prime minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, proposed that Israel withdraw unilaterally from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, his justification was that given Palestinian demographics, a continuation of the occupation would sooner or later turn Israeli Jews into a minority. He warned that the Jewish State would then find itself under attack from American Jewish organizations that boycotted South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Several months ago, the same Olmert who worried publicly about the stigma of apartheid appointed Avigdor Lieberman, a man of racist and antidemocratic convictions, as his deputy prime minister. Lieberman, who heads a right-wing party of mostly Russian immigrants, Yisrael Beiteinu, holds political views that would have made Rehavam Ze’evi sound like a charter member of the ACLU. Neither Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigrant National Front, nor Austria’s neofascist Jörg Haider (whose role in forming an Austrian government provoked international outrage that led to a diplomatic boycott), has called for measures as outrageous as Lieberman. Lieberman advocates not only the ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians from the occupied territories but getting rid of Arabs who are Israeli citizens. He has urged that Arab members of Israel’s Knesset be executed for having contacts with Hamas or for failing to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.

Lieberman was also appointed by Olmert as the minister in charge of responding to “strategic threats” to Israel. If Israel does indeed face an existential threat from Iran–and listening to Iran’s Ahmadinejad’s rantings at an obscene event he orchestrated in Tehran for Holocaust deniers, it is difficult not to take the threat seriously–it is hard to imagine a more effective way of trivializing that threat than with the appointment of Lieberman. Indeed, the decision is so reckless as to suggest it is Olmert and his government–including his Labor Party partners, who overwhelmingly approved Lieberman’s appointment–who pose the existential threat to their country.

The appointment also raises the question of how a government whose deputy prime minister is a man who does not recognize the right of Palestinians to even one square inch of territory in Palestine can impose draconian sanctions on a Hamas government that will not recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Talk about double standards!

Not the least of the ironies of the controversy generated by Carter’s book, or by its title, is that on any day of the week, there appear in virtually all major Israeli newspapers and in its other media far more extreme criticisms of the policies of various Israeli governments than one finds anywhere in the United States. Most of Israel’s adversarial editorializing would not be accepted in the op-ed pages of America’s leading newspapers.

It is also worth noting how uninformed Democratic and Republican mavens are even about the voting patterns of American Jews. The panic aroused by Carter’s book title was based on the belief of these mavens that American Jews share the hard-line right-wing views of organizations like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and AIPAC, organizations that would go out of business if Israelis elected a government committed to a political solution rather than a military one. Indeed, when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came into office in 1992 and concluded that Israel’s security would be far better served by a peace agreement that recognizes Palestinian rights than by beating the Palestinians into submission, both the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC went into institutional eclipse, from which they did not emerge until Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996.

The uncritical pro-Israel advocacy of these organizations has never been an accurate barometer of the political thinking or behavior of American Jews. Surely there is something Republican and Democratic leaders can learn from the fact that after six years of the presidency of the man believed by Israelis and by the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to be “the best American president Israel ever had,” 87 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic Party, whose chair is seen by the pro-Israel lobby as untrustworthy at best.

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of American Jews care deeply about Israel’s security and well-being. But that concern does not translate for most of them into mindless support for the policies of Israeli governments that seem to undermine Israel’s security. Most American Jews understand how recklessly both Democratic and Republican politicians manipulate the Israel-Palestine issue to their own advantage, just as most Israelis understand the same about many of their own politicians.

Carter’s book recapitulates the crucial role he played as convener of the Camp David summit meeting in 1978, which resulted in the landmark peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. His description of the two fascinating protagonists, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, makes for compelling reading no matter how familiar the story’s general outline.

When President Sadat met Carter at the White House not long after Carter assumed the presidency in 1977, Carter was surprised by how “well developed” Sadat’s determination to work with him on peace negotiations with Israel already was. Even more surprising was a letter Carter received from Sadat following this meeting, in which he urged that the President not do anything that would interfere with Sadat’s determination to negotiate directly with the Israelis–in dramatic contrast to Sadat’s fellow Arab leaders, for whom any contact with Israel, however indirect, was anathema.

Equally surprising was Carter’s impression of Begin when the two first met in Washington. He found Begin to be a man of far less rigid views than widely believed to be the case, and open to the ideas Carter had discussed with Sadat.

The optimism sparked by these initial encounters, which were dramatically reinforced by Sadat’s precedent-shattering visit to Jerusalem–a display of extraordinary political courage for which Sadat was soon to pay with his life–was seriously undermined by his deep disillusionment with Begin’s return visit to Egypt, at which time Begin insisted that Israeli settlements remain in the Sinai. Sadat saw his conversations with Begin as a fatal setback to his peace initiative and planned to publicly condemn Begin as a betrayer of the peace process in a speech he had scheduled to deliver in the United States. He was persuaded to drop that idea only after intense efforts by Carter. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was intended to bring about not only an end to the conflict between Israel and Egypt but a process that would grant autonomy–or “full autonomy,” a term Begin oddly insisted on–to Palestinians, something the treaty did not deliver.

Under the terms of the Camp David agreement, Israel and the Egyptians established a joint committee to implement the treaty’s provisions that dealt with Palestinian national rights and the creation of a self-governing Palestinian authority. Both Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman represented Israel on this committee, and both resigned when they realized that Begin was not serious about implementing those provisions. Begin replaced them with a more trustworthy member of his Cabinet, Dr. Joseph Burg, a venerable leader of the Mizrahi, the religious Zionist organization (and father of Abraham Burg, a former head of the Jewish Agency and Speaker of the Knesset).

The older Burg was a close friend of my family, and I often visited him when I was in Israel. I once saw him while he served on this joint Egyptian-Israeli committee and asked him what progress was being made. Burg, who was a marvelous raconteur, answered with a story. There is an old Jewish tale about a prince who asked a poor and simple Jew in the Pale of Settlement to teach his dog to speak and threatened to expel the Jews who lived within his princely domain if this Jew failed to do so within a year. When the Jew came home with the prince’s dog and explained to his startled wife what had happened, she became hysterical. Her husband calmed her by saying that he had an entire year before the prince returned, and that by then “either the prince will die or the dog will die.”

I told Burg I knew the story. “Then let me tell you the sequel,” Burg said, which he had obviously made up himself. The prince returned a year later and summoned the Jew, who showed up without the dog. The prince angrily demanded that the Jew produce the dog immediately, but the Jew pleaded with the prince to allow him to explain the situation. He assured the prince that the dog had indeed learned to speak, but that once he did, the dog began telling embarrassing stories. “What kind of stories?” asked the alarmed prince. “Stories about where you regularly took him at night when you told your wife you were taking the dog for a long walk.” The prince went into a panic and ordered the Jew to produce the dog immediately so that he could shoot him. “Don’t worry,” said the Jew. “I already did it for you, dear prince.”

That, said Burg, is what has happened with the Israeli-Egyptian talks on Palestinian autonomy. We shot the dog.

Carter places the blame for Israel’s failure to implement the provisions of the Camp David agreement for “full Palestinian autonomy” squarely on Begin because of his violation of a promise to freeze further settlement activity. Carter blames himself for not having obtained Begin’s promise in writing, and sees that as “the most serious omission of the Camp David talks.” In Carter’s view, Begin saw the peace treaty with Egypt as providing him “renewed freedom to pursue the goals of a fervent and dedicated minority of [Israel’s] citizens to confiscate, settle and fortify the occupied territories.”

The destructive impact of Israel’s continued confiscation of Palestinian land for its ever-expanding settlements on all subsequent efforts to end this conflict, and of the draconian regime imposed by Israel’s army on the occupied territories–which today include well over 500 Israeli military checkpoints and hundreds of other physical obstacles that have utterly shattered Palestinian life–is the thread that runs through the various chapters in Carter’s book, in which he reviews the Oslo agreement, the Camp David summit in 2000 and Clinton’s peace proposals, the road map, the Geneva Accord of 2003 and Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, as well as the legislative elections won by Hamas, the war in Lebanon and the deteriorating situation in Gaza.

The recent cease-fire announced by Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert, and the conciliatory tone–if not the unremarkable content–of Olmert’s latest speech in Sde Boker, led some to believe that a breakthrough in the long-stalled peace process was imminent. But these hopes were quickly dashed by Olmert’s rejection of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that President Bush re-engage vigorously in the Israel-Palestine peace process, not only to put an end to one of the world’s longest-lasting conflicts but also because an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could significantly improve America’s standing in the region and the ability of friendly Arab states to assist it in extricating itself from the Iraqi quagmire.

That a serious engagement in peacemaking by an American President who has been embarrassingly one-sided in his support of Israel’s government would so frighten Olmert and his Cabinet tells us all we need to know about the sincerity of his search for a Palestinian peace partner. The avoidance of a bilateral process in order to set Israel’s boundaries unilaterally has been the strategic objective of both Sharon’s Likud government and now of Olmert’s Kadima-Labor coalition government. It is a strategic goal that apparently remains unchanged despite Olmert’s repeated promises to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, a meeting for which he had not been able to clear his calendar for almost a year. That meeting has finally taken place. Not surprisingly, Olmert used it to announce some limited humanitarian gestures and financial assistance to help strengthen Abbas’s security forces in their confrontation with Hamas’s forces. Olmert’s own foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, noted dryly that these gestures (none of which have been implemented as of this writing) did nothing to bring a peace process any closer.

Indeed, whatever little good Olmert’s gestures might have done was undone within forty-eight hours of the meeting, when Israel’s government announced it had authorized the establishment of a new settlement in the Jordan Valley, well outside the so-called security fence it is building. And if that were not enough to discredit Abbas and vindicate Hamas, it was also revealed that various Israeli governmental ministries secretly collaborated in the construction of permanent new housing in illegal outposts that Olmert (and previously Sharon) had promised the United States would be dismantled.

Carter’s harsh condemnation of Israeli policies in the occupied territories is not the consequence of ideology or of an anti-Israel bias. He expresses deep admiration for the Israeli people and their remarkable achievements and empathy for the suffering they have endured as a result of Palestinian suicide bombings, and warns Palestinians that terrorism is discrediting their national cause. Carter repeatedly cites three conditions that he believes are necessary for a resumption of the peace process and a resolution of the conflict, of which the first is guarantees for Israel’s security, the second a complete end to Palestinian violence and terrorism, and the third recognition by Israel of the Palestinian right to statehood within pre-1967 borders.

But Carter is equally empathetic to the suffering of the Palestinian people under occupation, which he has seen firsthand during his many visits there. For most Westerners, including most Israelis, the Palestinian ordeal is invisible and might as well be taking place on the far side of the moon for all they know or seem to care about it.

Accusations by Alan Dershowitz and others that Carter is indifferent to Israel’s security only prove that no good deed goes unpunished. Arguably, the single most important contribution to Israel’s security by far was the removal of Egypt–possessing the most powerful of the military forces in the Arab world–from the Arab axis that was intent on the destruction of the State of Israel in its early years. Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel permanently removed the possibility of such a combined Arab assault against the Jewish State, something for which the late Syrian president Hafez Assad could not get himself to forgive Sadat, even after he was assassinated.

Assad’s bitterness over Sadat’s “betrayal” was a major theme of a four-hour meeting I had with him in 1994. He cited it as the reason he would not meet with Rabin or engage in other confidence-building measures that would help dispose Israelis to support the return of the Golan Heights, something I had urged him to do. He insisted that any concessions before an agreement is fully signed would be seen by the Syrian people as a repeat of Sadat’s betrayal.

Carter’s book provides an important reminder that the Camp David agreement not only created a durable peace between Egypt and Israel but served as a model for all of the major Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives that were to follow. Oslo’s concepts of a self-governing Palestinian Authority, of a five-year process that concludes with agreements on permanent-status issues, of negotiations on such issues that begin no later than in the third year of the agreement and of an armed Palestinian police force to maintain order are all spelled out in the Camp David agreement. And the outline of what an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would have to look like if an agreement is to be reached is also adumbrated in the Camp David accords of 1978, which included Begin’s acceptance of Egypt’s insistence on the return of all Egyptian territory held by Israel. The magnitude of that accomplishment places the pettiness of the critics of President Carter and his latest book in proper perspective.