Carter: PM created obstacles to peace

Former US president says half of settlers could remain where they are in final status agreement.

carter hand 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
carter hand 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Former US president Jimmy Carter accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of placing "several obstacles on the road to peace" on Monday, addressing the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee one day after Netanyahu laid out his policy during an internationally-televised speech. "In my opinion, Netanyahu brought up several obstacles to peace in his speech that others before him have not placed," Carter, who is visiting Israel as part of a larger Middle East tour, told the committee. "He insists on settlement expansion and demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, even though 20% of Israel's citizens are not Jewish." Carter nevertheless stressed that the differences between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu could be overcome. "I have to say that in spite of the differences between my president, Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, greater differences existed between myself and then-prime minister Begin," he said. Carter also discussed the Arab peace initiative, emphasizing that he saw it as a "very important first step on the way to regional peace" and that it can be seen as a supporting column for any regional agreement. He emphasized that he did not see any key differences between it and the plans presented by the Obama administration and the Quartet, which, in his words, all called for "a withdrawal from the conquered territories and giving full autonomy to the Palestinians." The former president, who visited Syria earlier this week, said that after meeting with Syrian President Bashir Assad, he had the impression that Assad was interested in immediately renewing negotiations without preconditions, but only based upon an understanding that Israel would retreat from the Golan Heights. Carter, who was invited to address the committee by Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima), assured members that he would not spare any effort in trying to garner an additional sign of life from captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. Last year, a letter from the soldier reached Carter's Ramallah office and was turned over to the Schalit family. Carter emphasized that the conditions had changed since last year, but he hoped that with the appointment of a new chief Israeli negotiator, the process would advance and Schalit would soon be released. During the meeting, MK Arye Eldad (National Union) pressed Carter on allegations that his non-profit organization accepted funds from Arab states and donors, but Carter replied that he received more donations from American Jews than from Arabs. Less than satisfied with Carter's response, Eldad issued a statement shortly after the meeting accusing Carter of being an agent of Arab states. An hour earlier, Carter met with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) who told him: "In Israel there is no agreement on the two-state formula, and in any case we cannot allow the establishment of a neighboring country that will constitute a real threat to our existence." The two talked for approximately a half-hour about the regional situation, with an emphasis on the recent speeches by Obama and Netanyahu. A Rivlin associate said that while he expressed his respect for Carter's effort to reach regional agreements, he added that "we came back here in the last 200 years in order to stay. Just before the establishment of the state we never dreamed that we would reach a population of seven million. We don't want to control any other population, but we are fighting to defend ourselves. We want to advance real peace, and not peace for the short term - 'peace now' that could turn out to be an illusion." Rivlin also raised the issue of Schalit, criticizing the fact that Hamas would not even allow anyone to visit the captured soldier. In response, Carter asked why Israel did not allow visits by mothers of prisoners from Gaza whose sons are held in Israeli prisons. Rivlin responded that "there is no room for comparison. Those are dangerous terrorists who were legally arrested after carrying out or trying to carry out acts of terror in our streets." Carter expressed hope that he could again pass a letter from Schalit's parents to their son in the same way that they received a letter from him, adding that he would like to meet jailed Palestinian terrorist and political figure Marwan Barghouti. Rivlin replied that from Israel's perspective, Barghouti, a popular symbol on the Palestinian street, is a convicted terrorist. Nevertheless, the two agreed that Carter would make a formal request and that Rivlin would in turn check as to whether such a meeting could be arranged. During a speech to human rights activists in Jerusalem, the former US president said that he had long believed 50 percent of the settlers could remain where they are in any final status agreement with the Palestinians. Carter said he had long endorsed this belief, which was part of the 2003 non-governmental Geneva Initiative. "The Geneva proposals on settlements recommend that about 2 percent of the area near the Green Line, occupied by about 50% of Israeli settlers, [they] should be permitted to stay where they are and that the amount of land would be swapped from Israel to the Palestinians. The Palestinians would give Israel that 2% of the land and there would be a swap," Carter said. "This proposal was later publicly endorsed by Prime Minister Olmert, shortly before he went out of office. I think it's a rational proposal." The statement was made one day after he visited the Neveh Daniel settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc, where he said he had always envisioned that it would remain part of Israel. At Monday's press conference, Carter downplayed the significance of his opinion by stating, "I might add quickly that the Geneva Accords have no official status and my statement is just a personal opinion of my own. Obviously the details of any future agreement concerning settlements, concerning the right of return, or concerning Jerusalem, would have to be concluded in peace talks." He was also careful to differentiate between his support for the existence of current settlements and his opposition to any settlement expansion, which he believed Netanyahu advocated in his speech on Sunday night. "I think the most serious result of last night's speech was, President Obama has emphasized very wisely the issue of settlement expansion and he has said privately to Prime Minister Netanyahu to the American public and to the world public that the United States does not approve of any further expansion of Israeli settlements." Carter called settlements, "the biggest single detail issue" and said of Obama, "[he] has picked out the right issue to draw a line for friendship and mutual understanding and cooperation on that issue. He's made it very clear that he's very sincere about it. "The decision will have to be that of the government of Israel. This is not a decision for the United States to make. But I agree with President Obama that if Israel continues to expand settlements, then the prospect for peace will be greatly diminished if not made almost impossible," he added. He called Netanyahu's speech "a step," because "he acknowledged the possibility of there being a two-state solution." For Carter, the issue of recognizing Israel as the Jewish state extends past the Palestinian people to the greater Arab world. "President Obama went to Saudi Arabia, for instance, before he made his speech in Cairo and he went there to try and induce the Arab countries to recognize Israel the polite way and without trading numbers with Israel. And progress was being made, but with the demand Arab countries have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it's a very serious problem," he said. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.