In an interview with the U.K.‘s Prospect magazine, former President Jimmy Carter is brutally frank in saying that all hope for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has ended. “At this moment, there is zero chance of the two-state solution,” he said, according to journalist Bronwen Maddox.
That judgment is widely shared and not so controversial. It is what he said next that ruffled feathers in Israel: “The Netanyahu government decided early on to adopt a one-state solution … but without giving them [the Palestinians] equal rights.” In this sentence, he accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of having pursued, upon his election in 2009, a deliberate policy of relentlessly annexing and colonizing the Palestinian West Bank, ensuring that it will end up as part of Israel. At the same time, he said, Netanyahu conspired to ensure that the 4.2 million Palestinians under Israeli occupation remain stateless and without rights.
It seems fairly clear to any dispassionate observer of Netanyahu’s government that these steps are precisely the ones it has taken, and Carter is simply stating the obvious. But in the world of international diplomacy, it is customary to put some of the blame for this state of affairs on the Palestinians. Pro-Israeli critics run interference for Tel Aviv, insisting that the PLO, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, has declined perfectly reasonable negotiating offers and that Israel would be very happy to have someone take Palestine off its hands, if only it could receive security in return. Carter violated these conventions of “on the one hand” political discourse by baldly and correctly blaming the occupying authority for its illegal actions, rather than the helpless, occupied population.
Carter wasn’t done with Netanyahu. Not only is the two-state solution dead, the Palestinian West Bank being entirely stolen, the Palestinians doomed to be ruled by the Israelis in perpetuity—but Israeli society and politics are such that in the single state now forming under Netanyahu’s iron fist, Palestinians “will never get equal rights.” In short, he implicitly called Israel an apartheid state in which the only hope for the Palestinians is to achieve at least “more equal rights.”
The interviewer caught Carter’s implication and asked if Israel is heading for apartheid. Carter said, “I am reluctant to use that word in a news article,” but admitted the logic of the description. The problem, the former U.S. president explained, was that in a one-state solution the Palestinians would end up being the majority of Israelis, which would be unacceptable to the Jewish minority. The only way Netanyahu can annex the West Bank and create a single state for both Jews and Palestinians, but retain a Jewish-majority vision of Israel, is to keep the Palestinians stateless and excluded from the vote. So Carter wouldn’t use the word (lest that become the only headline), but he accepted the argument for the use of the word. Surely that amounts to the same thing.
Carter began warning of Israeli racial exclusion with regard to West Bank Palestinians in his 2006 book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” It was arguably the first time someone of Carter’s stature had dared use the word in this context, and it produced vehement attacks on the former president from the Israel lobbies. Fourteen pro-Israel advisers on the board of his foundation noisily resigned in order to embarrass him. He was initially disinvited from speaking at Brandeis University unless he would share the podium with gadfly Alan Dershowitz, an offer he declined. When he did go to the campus in January of 2007, he said, “This is the first time that I’ve ever been called a liar and a bigot and anti-Semite and coward and plagiarist. … This has hurt me.” Given that Carter’s Camp David Accords in 1979 had protected Israel from the Egyptian army, its only credible foe, the vehemence of the denunciations seemed ungrateful, to say the least.
Without doubt, the lobbies’ extensive reach helped marginalize Carter in many important quarters. Although Carter himself denied it, there were allegations that the former president was, contrary to custom, excluded from speaking at the 2008 Democratic Party convention out of fear of offending pro-Israel donors.
The phrase is, of course, inexact if applied to Israel proper, where 20 percent of the population is Palestinian and has the right to vote as well as most other rights of citizenship (though unrecognized Israeli-Palestinian villages are treated in a discriminatory way by the state). But Israel has ruled the West Bank since 1967 without giving Palestinians any basic rights, and some South Africans have been so appalled by the situation there that they say it is actually worse than the former white apartheid system in their country.
As in so many other matters, the views of nonagenarian Carter have largely prevailed. Secretary of State John Kerry warned last year against Israel becoming an apartheid state. The goal post has moved, so that saying Israel is moving toward that eventuality is commonplace even among high U.S. officials (Kerry had to clarify that he didn’t mean Israel had already become an apartheid state). But there is not much point tiptoeing around the issue. Even a majority of the Israeli public agreed in a 2012 poll that there are elements of apartheid in the Israeli system.
One reason the word “apartheid” is so charged is that it is now an actionable crime under the Rome Statute, ratified in 2002, that created the International Criminal Court. To the extent that the judges there are affected by public opinion and international norms, the public stance of someone of Jimmy Carter’s stature is potentially important if Palestine brings an action against Tel Aviv on this basis.
Carter is beginning a fight against liver cancer, which he will no doubt pursue with the same steely-eyed determination he has shown in all of his political and social crusades. His forthright declaration of the end of any hope for a two-state solution is a twilight jeremiad about the darkness to come. There is going to be a single state in Israel-Palestine, he is saying. And Palestinians are not going to have the rights of citizens in it—just as the Bantustan KwaZulu remained under South African suzerainty even as its people had their South African citizenship revoked. It isn’t acceptable to the former president. It shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.
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