December 14, 2006
With Friends Like These…
I didn't show up to see Jimmy Carter sign any of his other 20 books, but I have a feeling none of those signings drew quite the crowd of the one Monday night in Pasadena.
At the other appearances, I bet there weren't angry protestors from the Jewish Defense League waving signs saying: "WORST PRESIDENT EVER!" and counterdemonstrators -- mostly from a group called "LA Jews for Peace" marching under signs saying "PEACE NOT APARTHEID!"
At the other signings, I bet a security guard didn't have to ask three attractive dark-haired young women holding an Israeli flag to step back from the entrance to Vroman's Bookstore, where the 39th president was inside signing books. I asked one of them what organization they represented.
"We're our own group," she said. "Call us Shirlee, Aviva and Michele United."
Carter was scheduled to start signing copies of "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" (Simon and Schuster 2006) at 7 p.m. By 1 pm the store had sold every book and had passed out all 1,800 tickets. Ticketholders stomped their feet in the chilly night in a line that ran down Colorado, around the block and back up.
"It's a big one," said a cashier. "But we had more for Howard Stern."
Sure, a lot of the people showed up for the celebrity factor -- parents taking their young children to see a real president; many people holding any of the Carter oeuvre just to score an autograph, a "good Christmas gift," said one elderly lady.
But the television news trucks, the young woman in kaffiyehs passing out flyers demanding a "Just Peace in Palestine," the heated arguments by the magazine racks over who started the Six-Day War -- the general circus-like atmosphere was solely due to the partisan passions the book has stirred.
"He's right on the money," said Bob, a middle-aged studio musician in a coat and tie waiting in line. "I think he's being kind in calling it 'apartheid' and not 'genocide.'"
I have a feeling the protestors -- pro and con and just plain strange -- will be following Carter for as long as the 82-year-old former president is out flacking "Palestine: Peace or Apartheid."
Write a factually sloppy, unfairly partisan polemic about a complex and sensitive issue and you get just what you'd expect: controversy at every whistle stop, major face time with Larry King and a book that shoots up the best-seller list. By Tuesday there wasn't a copy to be had at a single L.A. bookstore. It's like "A Million Little Pieces" for the foreign policy set.
I read the book and found it remarkably shallow. Carter's bottom line: Israel is to blame. America, urged on by the "Jewish lobby," is the co-conspirator.
By now numerous intelligent, detailed critiques of the book are available -- The Journal printed Alan Dershowitz's dissection several weeks ago -- and former friends and allies of Carter have distanced themselves from this book.
Professor Kenneth Stein resigned his post from the Carter Center last week. The book, he wrote, "is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments."
On Monday, I phoned Los Angeles attorney Ed Sanders to get his reaction.
When Carter was President, Sanders was his liaison to the Jewish community. He flew seven missions to the Middle East. Sanders was with Carter at Camp David and was an official witness to the Camp David Accords.
"I bet I know what you're calling about," Sanders said.
He said he hadn't read the book -- he still can't find a copy to buy -- but he read an op-ed Carter published in The Los Angeles Times summarizing his arguments and has followed the controversy closely. And his reaction?
"I'm shocked and dismayed," he said. "It's unacceptable."
Sanders can't understand why Carter couldn't at the very least present the Israeli argument for the barrier it has erected between the country proper and the Palestinian territories. "The wall is being erected because Israeli citizens were being murdered," Sanders said.
He is flabbergasted that Carter could present the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as little more than a kindly old man, when it was Arafat's duplicitous, kleptocratic rule that helped derail peace efforts and destabilize Palestinian society.
"Arafat couldn't make a deal if his life depended on it," Sanders said.
Sanders was the national president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when he resigned to serve the president. Doesn't that prove Carter's point on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby or, as Carter now repeatedly refers to it, "the Jewish lobby?"
Sanders doesn't see it that way: "There was never any restraint on a discussion of the facts."
That discussion led to the Camp David Accords, an outstanding legacy of peace. But Carter evidently sees no difference between the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who came to Jerusalem to make peace in full recognition of Israel, and the leaders of Hamas who have at most offered Israel a cease-fire on the way to Armegeddon. Between Hamas and Egypt, Sanders said, "there is a difference."
Dismay and disappointment are Sander's gentlemanly, judicious way of saying the book is a huge missed opportunity. What's so disappointing to me is that by the last thin chapter, Carter finally proposes the best possible course for Israel: a two-state solution that recognizes Israel's security and allows the Palestinian a viable state.
But one-sided diatribes don't engender the kind of debate that can help bring that solution closer. Israel is far from perfect, and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza have, as the conservative Ha'aretz columnist Shmuel Rosner pointed out, amounted to apartheid. But Israel's enemies are far from blameless in this tragic history, and in his book, Carter all but sanctifies their heinous methods and awful aims. A fair deal can't begin from a false premise.
"This book," Sanders said, "doesn't help."