Jimmy Carter: 'No Downside' to Palestine Statehood

Sep 18, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 1:34 pm

Former President Jimmy Carter urges the United States to not veto the Security Council vote for Palestinian statehood anticipated to take place next week.

"If I were president, I'd be very glad to see the Palestinians have a nation recognized by the United Nations," Carter tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "There's no downside to it."

Carter admits that for President Obama, failure to veto "would have some adverse effects perhaps on his political future."

But he thinks it's a price worth paying. His predecessor Harry Truman backed the creation of Israel for moral reasons, against the advice of his inner circle. Carter says that today, Palestinian statehood is "a basic moral commitment" for the U.S.

In 1977, Carter became the first American president to call for the creation of a Palestinian "homeland." He signed the Camp David Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel, and called for self-governance of the Palestinian people. After his term, he authored several books on the conflict, including the controversially titled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Carter asserts that, in light of the breakdown of U.S.-mediated peace negotiations, "the United States' influence among the Palestinians and inside Israel is at the lowest point it's been in the last 60 years."

The statehood vote is largely symbolic, making Palestine akin to the Vatican. Its greatest value, according to Carter, is to break the impasse in negotiations for a two-state solution. Without a vote, Carter says, "the only alternative is a maintenance of the status quo."

Israel adamantly opposes the U.N. vote and fears it could spawn another round of violence aimed at civilians.

"My position has always been, along with many other people, that any differences be resolved in a nonviolent way," Carter says.

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GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Shortly before Israel's Declaration of Independence in May 1948, President Harry Truman was in a bind. He wasn't sure what to do.


President HARRY TRUMAN: I was trying to find out why a Midwest Baptist like me should get so emotionally upset over Palestine and the fate of the Jews and their terrible position in the world.

RAZ: Historian Jeremi Suri from the University of Texas says with few exceptions, the men who surrounded Truman opposed recognizing the Jewish state, including a man Truman respected above all others: his Secretary of State George Marshall.

JEREMI SURI: Marshall makes it quite clear that he's opposed to this and, in fact, at one point says - and I don't think there's any other case where he ever says this - he says to the president, I might not vote for you if you do this.

RAZ: But Truman defied Marshall and recognized Israel anyway, which brings us to our cover story today.


RAZ: The circumstances are very different, so are the consequences. But six decades since the U.S. recognized Israel, Palestinians will take their case for statehood to the U.N.'s Security Council this coming week. The U.S. is expected to veto the motion, so the Palestinian leadership will likely go to the General Assembly. But then what?

We'll hear from a Palestinian legislator and a former State Department official, and later, former New York Mayor Ed Koch on what he thinks is President Obama's Israel problem. But first to former President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the landmark Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978. I spoke to him on Friday.

President Carter, welcome to the program.

President JIMMY CARTER: It's a pleasure, always.

RAZ: Let's say you are in President Obama's shoes today. Everyone - all your advisers are saying don't do it, don't allow Palestinian statehood to go through. Would you defy them?

CARTER: Yes, if I felt the same way as president that I feel now. And I'm sure I would. If I were president, I would be very glad to see the Palestinians have a nation recognized by the United Nations.

RAZ: Why should the United States, in your view, back a U.N. resolution supporting Palestinian statehood right now?

CARTER: Well, there's no downside to it. There's been basically a 34-year period of unfulfilled expectations by the Palestinians that Israel would carry out the promises it made to me and to Egypt and to the Palestinians and to the rest of the world. They've not been willing to do so, and they still occupy Palestine. They are building ever more settlements, and the Palestinians don't have any more rights, human rights and political rights, than they had when I was president in ancient times.

RAZ: But how does it actually help the Palestinians get closer to having an actual independent state?

CARTER: The only alternative is the maintenance of the status quo. And every day, as you well know, Israel is building more and more settlements, confiscating more and more Palestinian land, and depriving the Palestinians of their basic human and political rights, and that's a status quo that's unacceptable to the Palestinian people, and should be unacceptable to the rest of the world.

RAZ: There are huge risks as well. As you know, Israel is vehemently opposed to this and has asked the United States to back it. The U.S. will back Israel on this issue. So what motivation, or what reason would the president have to do this? Particularly, let's face it, you know, a man who is up for re-election.

CARTER: It would have some adverse effect, perhaps, on his political future. I faced the same prospect when I was president. I talked Israel into giving up their occupation of the Sinai region to Egypt in a peace treaty that came six months after the Camp David Accords. And, of course, that's a decision that President Obama would have to make.

And I think that what has - President Obama has expressed in the past as his own position on the issue was in his two major speeches: one calling for no more settlements and then earlier this year calling for the '67 borders to prevail with some modifications.

RAZ: In very simple terms, do you think this vote for a non-voting member status for Palestine, will it be a game changer? Will it really change anything?

CARTER: Well, I think so. Let's just assume that in the General Assembly, there is a vote following a veto in the Security Council by the United States. The status of Palestine will be almost identical to what it is with the Vatican now and what it has been on an interim basis with newcoming nations in the past. And so it won't be a full member of the United Nations, but it'll have certain privileges of a membership in international organizations.

RAZ: But you believe that the United States is going to be on the wrong side of history here.

CARTER: I believe so.

RAZ: That's President Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia. President Carter, thank you so much.

CARTER: Thank you very much.

RAZ: Now, practically speaking, what would a general assembly vote giving Palestinians non-voting member status actually mean? That's a question I put to Hanan Ashrawi, a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Dr. HANAN ASHRAWI: It will enable us to join different organizations, institutions, agencies of the U.N. It will also designate our borders, 67, as occupied territory, Jerusalem as our capital. And it will put an end to Israeli attempts at transforming the legal status of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Gaza as disputed territory and therefore up for grabs by Israel. And it will enable us to use international law as the basis of our relationship and as the basis of any kind of negotiations in the future.

RAZ: So essentially, this would expand the toolbox and, as you would say, the limited toolbox that Palestinians now have.

ASHRAWI: Exactly. It would give us access to different institutions, organizations, international law. At the same time, it would also enhance our relations with other countries because we are hoping to have even more bilateral relations and recognitions.

RAZ: So it seems to me that this decision by the Palestinian Authority is an admission of failure to a certain extent, a loss of hope that any solution can be achieved anytime soon through negotiations with Israel.

ASHRAWI: It's not a loss of hope or failure. The peace process, of course, has failed as it was designed. I mean, the negotiations are the tool, are an instrument. And the problem is that this instrument has been flawed. For two decades, we've been negotiating. So now we're saying, OK, either you fix this instrument, you fix this tool that is supposed to achieve independence and statehood and end the occupation. If you can't fix it, you find another tool.

We do not attribute inherent value to negotiations. Negotiations are a means. Unfortunately, Americans, Israelis and some Europeans seem to think that negotiations are the be-all and the end-all. All you need to do is negotiate. Well, we've done that. We've been there. The problem is you have to fix negotiations in a way that would guarantee that they would produce an outcome, that they have a time frame. So that's what is needed.

Now, if they can fix the negotiations, fine. We'll negotiate. But other than that, we are trying to find options that are workable, that will rescue the chances of peace, and that will not allow the conditions to degenerate into either a breakdown in Palestine or a breakout of violence or both.

RAZ: Well, now critics of the Palestinian plan say this will create false hope, and that false hope among millions of Palestinians, the end result of that could be a conflagration, a new round of violence.


ASHRAWI: Well, it's very kind of them to worry about the Palestinian existential mood. What created false hope was President Obama's speeches in Cairo and elsewhere. He promised us peace, a two-state solution. He promised a rapid resolution. He promised a cessation, a full cessation of all settlement activity. He raised expectations, and all hopes were dashed.

What we're trying to tell people in a realistic way is that this is a corrective move. This is a process of rectification of a very lethal situation, and we are entering a new phase. This is the beginning and not the end.

RAZ: That's Hanan Ashrawi. She's a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a noted Palestinian human rights activist. Dr. Ashrawi, thank you so much.

ASHRAWI: You're most welcome, Guy. It's been my pleasure.

RAZ: But what about the downside? Here's Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Action at the U.N. isn't going to bring them any closer to realizing their national aspirations. It may not be a disaster, but it is certainly not going to help create the kinds of circumstances and environment that are critically important if you're ever going to get a two-state solution.

RAZ: But what kind of consequences do you think it'll have?

MILLER: Worst case, you end up in a situation where the Israelis react in a bad way. They withhold tax transfers, they impose additional checkpoints. Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation is undermined because Congress decides that it wants to withhold assistance. Violence ensues. You get frustration on the streets. The move sparks celebration, which ends up massing thousands of people day after day borrowing from the Arab Spring. They press against the checkpoints, they press against the settlements. And you get a confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians.

And finally, the PLO decides that now that it is a non-member state, it can have access, assuming the host bodies agree, to organizations like the ICC, the criminal court, or the international court of justice, and they begin to press their claims against Israel in these forums, and you get an ongoing propaganda war, a kind of tick versus a tock, which replaces negotiations, and we're all left farther than ever from where we want to be.

RAZ: Aaron David Miller, should the U.S. veto a U.N. resolution in the Security Council that would grant a Palestine statehood?

MILLER: The answer is absolutely. We should veto a campaign to gain membership in the U.N. as a member state. If you admit Palestine, a fundamentally divided polity right now, half of which is controlled by Hamas, some of which is controlled by Fatah, many Palestinians who claim residence aren't even in the state, a state that doesn't have a monopoly over the forces of violence with its own society, and you try to admit that state as a member state of the United Nations, I would argue it's going to fundamentally make negotiations much, much harder.

RAZ: That's Aaron David Miller. He's a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former Mideast adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State. His forthcoming book is called "Can America Have Another Great President?" Aaron David Miller, thank you.

MILLER: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.