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.