MIDDLE EAST: In Lebanon, Jimmy Carter dishes on Obama's Israel policy
Arabs concerned that Hillary Clinton will tilt the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama strongly toward Israel need not worry, says Jimmy Carter.
The future secretary of State's pro-Israel stance will be balanced out by Obama's national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, who Carter said will adopt a more nuanced view toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jones helped train Palestinian security forces, leading to one of the most successful recent experiments in Palestinian autonomy.
"Jim Jones is thoroughly familiar with the situation in Palestine," the former president and human rights activist told an audience of students, faculty and others at the American University of Beirut on Friday night.
Carter was in Beirut over the last few days meeting with Lebanese officials and other luminaries. He also appeared before an overflow crowd at AUB, where he answered questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections, which his Carter Center is currently scheduled to monitor.
Carter, who brokered the peace deal between Israel and Egypt and later won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of the homeless, has become a controversial figure lately for his outspoken criticism of Israeli settlement and construction activities in the Palestinian territories. His book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," caused a firestorm of protest by supporters of Israel offended by his comparison of the policies of the Jewish State to those of white-ruled South Africa up until the 1990s.
Though Carter has strained relations with the Bush administration, the U.S. envoy to Lebanon, Ambassador Michele Sison, appeared for the talk. A minor kerfuffle emerged from the visit after the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah rejected Carter's request for a meeting, branding him an agent of the U.S. administration. Carter had wanted to meet with representatives from the group to get an OK for monitoring the May 2009 elections.
But he shrugged when an audience member asked why he thought Hezbollah refused to meet with him, saying he wasn't going to "beg" for a sitdown, and in any case intermediaries had told him it OK for his foundation to monitor the vote.
During his talk, Carter made an impassioned appeal for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but heaped most of his criticism on Israeli policies. He said that the United Nations, the Arab League, the Geneva Accords and the "Quartet," made up of the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N., had already provided the legal framework for a viable peace between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
He urged Israel to remove most West Bank settlements and restrict construction of an Israeli security barrier or wall to Israel's 1967 borders.
But he was hopeful that the Obama administration would get a quick start on addressing the festering 60-year conflict on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
Carter said Obama had told him privately that he would begin working on the problems of the "Holy Land," as Carter calls it, early in his term, unlike Bush and former President Bill Clinton, who launched peace initiatives at the end of their presidencies.
But he described "tremendous political pressure" in the U.S. to adhere to the policies of the Israeli government. "It's not easy as an elected official to avoid these pressures," he told the audience.
He said he was disappointed by Obama's remarks at a meeting of the American Israeli Political Action Committee meeting earlier this year arguing for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
"I was perhaps the most disturbed American out of 350 million Americans when he made his speech to AIPAC," Carter said. "I was taken aback."
But he said he called the then-candidate afterward and received a clarification, which Obama also reiterated in a CNN interview.
Carter said he believed a just settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis would help reduce terrorism. "If the Palestinian issue was resolved peacefully and justly and with human rights, a great deal of the animosity toward my country would be alleviated," he said.
-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut
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Photos: At top, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter waves during his speech at the American University of Beirut on Friday. Credit: Wael Hamzeh / European Pressphoto Assn.
At middle, U.S. Charge d'Affaires Michele Sison, center, before Carter's talk. Credit: Grace Kassab / Associated Press
At bottom, students gather outside the hall as Carter speaks. Credit: Grace Kassab / Associated Press