Carter on Mideast - U.S. must push harder for peace

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration must push harder -- and be evenhanded -- to revive sagging peace hopes in the Middle East, former President Jimmy Carter said Monday.

In an Associated Press interview 25 years after the Camp David accords, Carter said Israel and the Palestinians had not only abandoned the U.S.-backed road map for peace but had violated it -- Israel by threatening the "removal" of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He suggested the Bush administration was tilted toward Israel.

"At this point, prospects are dismal," Carter said. "The U.S. does not seem to be making any strong effort to implement" the road map outlined by President Bush, and the other parties to the blueprint -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- are not very involved, he said.

And yet, Carter said, he had just reread the document, and again found it "a very good plan."

Twenty-five years ago, Carter negotiated between Israel and Egypt to help produce their breakthrough peace treaty. The occasion will be marked on Wednesday by a gathering in Washington of former American, Israeli and Egyptian delegates.

"As I know from bitter experience at Camp David, the likelihood the two sides are going to come together voluntarily and make very troubling concessions is nil," the former president said of Israel and the Palestinians today.

"The only way this can be done is by the extreme, concerted commitment of the president of the United States or his top representatives -- preferably himself -- and a balanced approach between the two adversarial groups," Carter said.

"You have to let the Palestinians know we are representing their key interests," and you have to let the Israelis know the same, Carter said.

"The United States is not being evenhanded," Carter said by telephone from his home in Plains, Ga. "You have to have a mediator, willing to negotiate freely with both sides, and equally firmly with both sides."

The 1978 Camp David agreement and the Oslo accords of 1993, in which Norway mediated a partial accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, showed that good-faith negotiations can be successful and permanent, the former president said.

A senior official in the Bush administration, responding to Carter's comments, said Bush remained deeply committed to the road map and would continue to work to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together.

But the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said Bush had noted it was up to the parties involved -- Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab countries -- to make the most difficult decisions leading to peace.

Carter stressed that he was not criticizing Bush. The president has so many foreign policy problems on his desk, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, "it is not possible for him to devote the time and attention to the Mideast peace process that would be required," Carter said.

"I won't have any criticism of him," Carter said. "If I was in his place, I could not spend 13 days in isolation" at Camp David with the Iraelis and Palestinians.

Carter negotiated over 13 days in 1978 at the presidential retreat with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to come up with the Camp David accords. Sadat was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in 1981. Begin died in 1992.

Israel's official decision to "remove" Arafat, which Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested Sunday might mean killing, exile or isolation, also drew strong criticism from Carter.

"It just sends a wave of increasing animosity not only through the Palestinians but the entire world," he said. "That statement and others are totally contrary to the position of the U.S. government, as well. The road map is supposed to preclude exile."

Arafat could be a stronger leader, and more forceful in his condemnation of the violent attacks on Israel by Hamas and other groups, Carter said.

"But I don't think he has ever had control over Hamas," the extremist Palestinian group that has struck Israel with terror attacks, Carter said of Arafat. "And I presume Hamas leaders will not accept his authority."

Arafat is sealed off by Israel in his battered West Bank headquarters, Carter noted.

"I don't think he is in charge of everything among the Palestinians," he said.

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