The January 13th issue of the Economist included an essay titled “Diaspora Blues” with the following byline: “Jews around the world should join the debate about Israel, not defend whatever it does.”
The significance of this statement, in what is the most respected periodical of political analysis in the English speaking world, should not go unnoticed. It represents a shift in the discourse on Israel and the future of the Middle East, and could be a harbinger for tangible and lasting peace in the region. The byline tacitly acknowledges the proposition set forth in recent months that debate on Israel does not exist in certain circles, and that this lack of discussion is as bad for the Israelis as it is for the Palestinians. The fact that similar sentiments are now discussed openly is a testament to the efforts of a few high profile individuals.
The most prominent of them is Jimmy Carter, the former US president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. His recent book, provocatively titled Palestine, Peace not Apartheid, courted enough controversy to remain on several bestseller lists since its release, recently reaching number four on Amazon.
The book is an utter catastrophe for the Israel lobby in the US. To be clear, it is not because of its content, but rather because of its author. None of the observations Carter makes in the book are revelatory. What is ground-breaking is the fact that people are actually listening. Carter has brought his full weight to bear on the issue as a former president and one of the most respected statesmen and advocates for peace in the world. There are few individuals who can match Carter’s credentials and gravitas, so his book simply cannot be ignored or casually dismissed. The Israel lobby did not ignore it, assigning its chief pit bull, Alan Dershowitz, to a full force assault on Carter’s credibility and character. Based on book sales and the appearance of public discussion, as exemplified by the recent Economist article, it seems that assassinating Carter’s character may not be the best strategy.
As Carter argues, the situation in Israel is similar to the issues that faced South Africa more than a decade ago. The occupation of Palestine is unsustainable, as was the apartheid regime that ruled until 1994. The minority of voices in Israel and the US that are perpetuating it are creating a policy distortion that supports an unsustainable reality. By attempting to remove this distortion, Carter is doing a service to Israel as much as the Palestinians.
The Blacks of South Africa, under the leadership of luminaries like Nelson Mandela, were able to tell a compelling enough story that they garnered support from virtually the entire world. While a number of factors contributed to the fall of apartheid, international pressure played a critical role in isolating South Africa politically, economically and culturally to the point where life for the whites was becoming miserable enough to force change. If Palestinians are to learn anything from the South African experience, it is that a willingness to compromise, coupled with international pressure, can make a difference. The problem that the Palestinians face is the fact that their story is written by their occupiers. The Blacks of South Africa, whose struggle was also violent and bloody, were perceived as a community fighting against injustice. Not so for the Palestinians, who are generally perceived by Americans as irrational extremists and terrorists. That is what Carter is trying to change, by filling a gaping vacuum in leadership on the issue. Palestinians always lacked charismatic leaders like Mandela or Desmond Tutu to communicate to the world on their behalf. While the plight of Blacks and Palestinians may be similar, the perception is not.
These distorted perceptions contribute to the fact that debate on the topic of Israel in the US at the policy level remains severely impaired. Elected US officials do not openly critique or seriously debate Israeli policy. Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, said of Carter’s book: “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously.”
Carter is keenly aware that until the internal politics of the US allow for this debate to take place, it will be impossible for international pressure to bring about change in the occupied territories. He is hoping to spark enough public discussion about Israeli policy to impact a critical mass of policy makers, legislators and ordinary people. Carter is attempting to reshape the Palestinian narrative for American audiences into a struggle against injustice. If he is successful, he opens the possibility for the US, and then the rest of the international community, to pressure Israel into a reasonable settlement.
In a strange sort of way, Carter could become the Mandela of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is attempting to reframe the conflict in a manner that could lead to a peaceful resolution for both sides. If it works, Carter would have achieved more for Israeli security, Palestinian dignity and Middle East peace than anyone over the past 30 years.
Firas Ahmad is Senior Editor of Islamica Magazine.