Creating new perspectives since 2009

Jimmy Carter: the first (and only) US president to identify Israeli apartheid

February 20, 2023 at 8:22 am

Retired US President Jimmy Carter [AFP/Getty Images]

As Jimmy Carter, at 98 the longest-lived US president, spends his final days with his family in “home hospice care”, obituary writers will be busy reflecting upon the legacy of America’s 39th president.

There’s a great deal of talk about legacy these days as political leaders come and go with increasing rapidity. The pragmatic Jacinda Ardern, for example, quit last month after being New Zealand’s Prime Minister since 2017. She said she knew that her time was up, which was a rare admission in the tough, male-dominated world of politics. Some of her key achievements are well known. After a lone gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019 and killed 51 people, within a week she had moved swiftly to ban military-style semi-automatic firearms. This attracted breathless admiration from the anti-gun lobby in the US, where 45,222 firearm-related deaths in 2020 recorded a new high.

Ardern will also be remembered for her uncompromising elimination strategy during the first wave of Covid-19. She was credited with saving lives as New Zealand’s population of five million people recorded fewer than 2,500 Covid-19 deaths, giving it one of the lowest pandemic-related death rates in the Western world.

Scotland’s outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, although as high profile as Ardern in many ways, cannot boast of a similarly admirable legacy, although her approval ratings shot up compared with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s over her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. With eight successful elections under her belt, some critics will say that her legacy as the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) will be the failure to deliver independence to the people of Scotland as well as her failure to deliver her controversial and universally unpopular Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

Personally, I will remember Sturgeon for embracing without question the working definition of anti-Semitism prepared by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The definition clearly contradicted a hate crime review commissioned by her own government and its use has been “weaponised” to silence critics of the state of Israel.

The issue of anti-Semitism was back on the front line of British politics a few days ago thanks to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. He wants to close the revolving door at 10 Downing Street through which Conservatives Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have come and gone, although current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks a bit more stable.

READ: Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot calls for UK to do ‘what is right’ and recognise State of Palestine

They all embraced the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism wholeheartedly, but none share Starmer’s fanatical enthusiasm for Zionism. “Anti-Zionist anti-Semitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition,” he told Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). “It denies the Jewish people alone a right to self-determination; it equates Zionism with racism, focuses obsessively on the world’s sole Jewish state, and holds it to standards to which no other country is subjected; and it seeks to paint the actions of Israel as akin to the crimes of those who sought to annihilate European Jewry in the Shoah.

“Anyone who has visited a Holocaust memorial, a concentration camp or spoken with a Holocaust survivor… Will be struck by the cruelty of that charge… will have grasped the resolve of Israel’s founding fathers to make a reality of the words ‘Never Again’ and will understand why – for so many Jews – Israel will always stand as the ultimate guarantor of their safety.”

That statement should be analysed carefully, but I will pick him up on just one point. It simply isn’t true to claim that its critics hold Israel to “standards to which no other country is subjected”. Critics, myself included, believe simply that Israel should be held to the same standards as every other country, including international laws and conventions. It should not be allowed to act with impunity.

Amnesty labels Israel an apartheid state - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Amnesty labels Israel an apartheid state – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Like many Israeli leaders, Starmer spoke about peace and the now barely credible two-state solution for the conflict with the Palestinians, upon whose land Israel is built. He wants his legacy to be the man who brought an end to two decades of Tory rule, but socialists in Britain see him as a Zionist who has taken extreme measures to rid the party of any critics of Israel, using anti-Semitism as both the excuse and tool to do so. Starmer’s zealous, McCarthy-style witch-hunts, led to scores of socialist Jews finding themselves targeted and expelled from the party.

When Starmer was first elected as Labour leader the right-wing Israeli press hailed his arrival as someone who is proud to call himself a Zionist. Once in Labour HQ, he apologised to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks, calling it a “stain” and pledging to stamp it out. If his legacy is to get rid of forty Jewish members from the Labour ranks because they have dared to criticise Israel, then that is not a legacy of which to be proud.

Kim Johnson row: Starmer is ignoring Israel’s slide into fascism

Nor, for that matter, is Starmer’s decision to ban former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn from being a Labour candidate in the next General Election. Even though he has been MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour members will not be allowed to help him as an independent candidate.

Anti-Semitism is a stain to be condemned and fought against, and I have called it out often. In truth, though, if I was still a card-carrying Labour member — I quit during Tony Blair’s war in Iraq in 2003 — I would be expelled just for writing this article. I’m now on the National Executive Committee of the Alba Party which is, thankfully, beyond the influence of pro-Israel lobby groups in Westminster.

Winning a battle on the hill of anti-Semitism is nothing to be proud of, especially when you’re targeting Jews, but working towards an achievable peace in the Middle East is something really tangible and worthy. It’s something that just about every Israeli president or prime minister will be remembered for promising, but failing to achieve.

The Israeli leader who came closest to a solution was probably Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth prime minister of Israel who was killed by a Jewish assassin in 1995. Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, is still revered today in sections of Israeli society. He struck at the end of a peace rally in support of the Oslo Accords in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square. The ultranationalist Amir radically opposed Rabin’s peace initiative, especially Oslo. Since killing Rabin, who abandoned force in favour of negotiations to achieve peace with the Palestinians, he has never expressed regret. Bizarrely, he even has his own fan club.

It is nearly 50 years since US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn wined and dined Rabin and his wife at the White House. Although Carter knew that peace was not just around the corner, he never stopped trying to deliver it.

Unlike other US presidents who never went back to the region after leaving the Oval Office, Carter admitted having a “deep religious interest in the Holy Land” and never abandoned the cause of peace. He was also the first and last US president to say that Israeli settlements are illegal. That, I believe, will be Carter’s legacy in the coming weeks following the dramatic deterioration of his health announced this week.

As the author of the best-seller Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid published in 2006, Carter was also one of the first politicians to identify Israel as an apartheid state and say so publicly. His observations have been justified by several major human rights organisations over the past couple of years, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem.

In his book, Carter argues that Israel’s continued control and construction of illegal settlements are the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the region. That perspective, coupled with “Apartheid in the title and what critics claimed were “errors” and “misstatements” in the book, was controversial. Carter defended himself and his book, and countered that, “In the real world… it has been overwhelmingly positive.”

I remember when hypocritical world leaders swarmed to Nelson Mandela’s funeral to take selfies and give selective eulogies for one of Palestine’s biggest supporters while refusing to acknowledge his famous comment, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” I imagine that the same powerful cabal will be issuing condolences dripping with faux praise while swerving away from the unstinting work that Jimmy Carter did for Palestine. His legacy will no doubt be that he was the first and, to date, the only Western leader with the courage to call out Israel for what it is: an apartheid state. As US presidents come and go, Mr Carter, you will forever be remembered as a man of peace and integrity, and a true friend of the Palestinian people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.