Carter's model for Mideast peace

By Thomas Oliphant, 9/21/2003

WASHINGTON -- IN TOWN the other day for a significant anniversary, former President Jimmy Carter said he had arisen earlier than usual to ''reread'' the nearly failed ''road map'' for still-elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Expecting questions from the press about the current murderous mess, Carter said he wanted to be extra careful in choosing his words and also about asserting that what he had once done could be replicated now.

Right there, he put his finger on the most important difference between the atmosphere surrounding the stunning Camp David accords, negotiated 25 years ago last week, and the atmosphere today.

As he and all the surviving figures -- including Israelis and Egyptians -- of those amazing 13 days in Maryland that produced the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt the following year gathered, they provided a dramatic contrast with the passive, reactive bunch mismanaging today's impasse.

Typically, the Carterites and their colleagues from abroad spent an entire day, not in mutual congratulation, but in a searching reexamination of their intricate negotiations and their possible relevance to the present impasse.

More than anything, all the important breakthroughs and failures demonstrate again and again that involved activist presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton) can make a positive difference and that passive, reactive presidents (Reagan and George W. Bush) rarely do.

As much as anything, the Camp David accords were a triumph of the will to succeed over the apparent impossibility of success. This will and this activism was most apparent as the obstacles to agreement between the late Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, and the martyred Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, gradually disappeared.

Nearly every aspect of the agreement (above all the commitment to real peace and acceptance and the return of Egyptian territory on the Sinai peninsula occupied since the 1967 and 1973 wars) had been negotiated save only the presence of 14 Israeli settlements on the land, occupied by some 3,000 people. The impasse was complicated by the fact that Begin had literally sworn before God that he would never dismantle a single settlement.

Carter did not let that seemingly impossible position frustrate him. At the 11th hour, he pressed Begin to agree to let the matter of the Sinai settlements be considered by the Israeli parliament, and to neither attempt to influence the Knesset judgment nor to block the implementation of a decision by its members to dismantle the settlements.

Begin agreed. The Knesset vote was overwhelming, and there was peace between Israel and the largest, most powerful Arab nation that had also broken its military ties to the Soviet Union. This was land for peace, and the Knesset's vote showed that with a chance for genuine, secure peace Israeli politics could easily overcome party and doctrinal obstacles to saying yes.

Times have certainly changed. The adoption of terror tactics on behalf of the Palestinians is certainly one big change, along with its encouragement and toleration by Yasser Arafat's bankrupt movement and too many Arab countries -- in a way mirroring the ''rejectionism'' of the PLO and states like Syria and Saudi Arabia 25 years ago. Only Jordan has joined Egypt in those years.

However, Carter himself (now a figure of controversy in much of Israel) also cites the dramatic change in the settlement situation, a fact often neglected by many Americans. At the time of the accords, there were two dozen or so, all but a couple right near Jerusalem, with a total of about 5,000 people. Today, there are roughly 125 settlements, with a population approaching 250,000, and they are spread out. Each comes equipped with its own protective garrison of Israeli soldiers, not to mention the roads connecting them and making a mockery of the so-called Green Line (the pre-1967 war borders of Israel).

For the record, Carter believes the Green Line must be adjusted; he also believes that Arafat is useless as a negotiator, though he insists that realism demands that any other Palestinian leader will have to have his support. And of course he believes terror and the organizations that use it must be eradicated.

Even more of a problem, Carter believes, is that the end of the Cold War has removed a huge reason for ceaseless US activism. He recognizes that North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan are legitimately center-stage right now, even though he also realizes international terrorism that threatens America gets much of its impetus from the impasse.

Today, advocates of a new US initiative focus on a massive intervention in the Palestinian government -- either with money to stabilize the economy and social services or even with troops under international auspices to help bust the terrorist groups. Instead, the most likely result is more of the same. In 1978, that kind of impotent US passivity was considered unacceptable.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.