Mom and Hamas: Carter Back in the Middle East
A recent "Saturday Night Live" skit featured an ersatz Larry King (redundant, I know) interviewing former President Jimmy Carter and chastising him for writing too many books that no one ever reads, a charge with which a reluctant Carter finally agrees. Unkind, but funny.
Just in time for Mom's Day, the latest oeuvre from the compulsively prolific ex-president is "A Remarkable Mother," the story of his mother Lillian, or "Miz Lillian," as just about everyone whose path she crossed called her.
A lovely book and, as Carolyn See wrote in a Washington Post review, "far from the sentimental tribute one might expect... [It's] the story of how one woman grew up and married in backward rural Georgia and how, even before her son became president, she learned to think globally, to take her own place on the public stage."
My encounter with her on that stage occurred about a year or so after Jimmy Carter became president. She was guest of honor at a banquet thrown in the Grand Ballroom of New York's Waldorf-Astoria by a national organization of rabbis and affiliated laity. The next day, we taped an interview for PBS, conducted by Robert MacNeil, in her suite.
I remember asking her if everything was okay with the hotel and she replied, "Well, yes, but the johnny paper won't stay on the roll." I hastened to the bathroom to fix the problem for her.
At the dinner the night before, every guest had been given an autographed copy of her book, "Away from Home," a collection of letters to her family written when, at the age of 68, she traveled to India as a Peace Corps volunteer. For nearly two years she worked at the Godrej Leper Colony, not far from Mumbai.
The rabbis were honoring Lillian Carter for her good deeds; not only her Peace Corps service, but also work as a social and civil rights activist in the South and, of course, begetting a president of the United States.
As she accepted the award, the hundreds in attendance gave her a standing ovation. When the applause finally died down she stood facing the crowd, waited a beat, then declared, "I've never seen so many Jews in my life!"
There was a long moment of stunned silence. And then the entire, vast ballroom erupted in laughter. Her unvarnished directness won them over.
Such candor, passed from mother to son, helped President Carter negotiate the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, agreements that led to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty the following year.
Much of that success was overwhelmed by the Iranian hostage crisis that crippled his reelection bid but the Middle East has remained an abiding interest of the ex-president. The search for peace there is one of the mandates of the Carter Center, his human rights organization based at Emory University in Atlanta.
Carter has been unafraid to throw himself into Mideast controversy -- witness his 2006 book, "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid." His activities and statements frequently have aroused the ire of the White House and State Department as well as the mockery and scorn of critics here and in Israel.
But no matter what many believe, there is value in his actions, including his much-maligned trip two weeks ago to meet with militant Hamas leaders from the West Bank, Gaza and Syria. As he reported at a conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the Israeli Council on Foreign Relations, "The problem is not that we met them, but that the U.S. and Israeli governments refuse to meet with them, making peace harder if not impossible to achieve."
He elaborated in a Monday New York Times op-ed piece: "A counterproductive Washington policy in recent years has been to boycott and punish political factions or governments that refuse to accept United States mandates. This policy makes difficult the possibility that such leaders might moderate their policies." Bloodshed and terrorism continue.
The State Department said that it asked Carter not to make the trip to meet with Syrian President Bashar al Assad and leaders of Hamas, which State has designated a "foreign terrorist organization." Carter claimed no such request was made.
The trip did, in fact, result in a series of statements from Hamas that, if true, could lead to their acceptance of a two-state solution -- along 1967 borders -- if approved by the Palestinian people (there already has been some dissent about this from Hamas subordinates). And Syria expressed to Carter its willingness to negotiate with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights, but only with the participation of the United States. That possibility may have been derailed by last week's intelligence revelations of the alleged attempt to build a Syrian nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea (the site was destroyed several months ago in an Israeli bombing raid).
Further roiling the constantly heaving morass last week was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's claim that a secret letter from President Bush, delivered four years ago, according to The Washington Post, "gave the Jewish state permission to expand the West Bank settlements that it hopes to retain in a final peace deal, even though Bush's peace plan officially calls for a freeze of Israeli settlements across Palestinian territories on the West Bank." So, as far as Carter's actions go, let he who is without sin cast the first brickbat.
On Friday, in the wake of the Hamas meetings, Israel's UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman called Carter "a bigot." Yet, this is how Carter concluded his remarks to that conference in Jerusalem. "No important achievement has ever occurred in the Middle East without taking a risk," he said. "I hope the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the U.S. government are prepared to take risks for peace.
"The transformation of Israel in sixty years has been wonderful to behold. The next miracle for which we should all pray is the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state that will live in peace with Israel and will cooperate with all their neighbors for the future of the region and its children.
"The Holy Land is a place of miracles. It is time for the miracle of peace."
Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
copyright 2008 Michael Winship