As an ex-president, Jimmy Carter has intervened in some of the world's most troubled hot spots, trying to reduce tensions in North Korea, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Africa and Central America. But now he is staging a literary intervention with the publication of "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," a book that strongly criticizes Israel and the United States for blocking serious peace initiatives and exacerbating terrorism in the Middle East.
Carter's new book, which drew fierce criticism on the Internet even before it appeared in stores, pulls no punches: Although he deplores suicide bombings and other violent attacks on Israeli society, he believes the central reasons for a stalled peace settlement is Israel's continuing refusal to give back the West Bank lands it occupied after the 1967 war and America's unflinching political support for Israel.
In his strongest passages, he blasts Israel's construction of a security wall between itself and Palestinians, saying the controversial structure is a brazen land grab by a minority of Israelis -- an "imprisonment wall" that has encircled thousands of Palestinians on the West Bank and has become a form of economic apartheid.
"I wrote the book because I wanted to stimulate a debate in this country about what is actually going on in the Middle East," Carter said during an interview at a midtown hotel on the first day of his national book tour. "This is a subject which, in my mind, has rarely if ever been honestly debated or discussed in the United States."
The topic is dear to his heart -- and key to his legacy. While Carter's presidency gets mixed reviews from many historians, his high-water mark was the 1978 brokering of a peace treaty between Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. Since then, plans for a wider, more permanent peace in the region have been stymied.
At 82, Carter has the same boyish smile, the luminous blue eyes and friendly demeanor that helped him win the presidency in 1976. But he seemed quieter and more subdued, more fragile, as he sank into an overstuffed chair and talked about his reasons for writing this book. He has now published 21 titles, the most by far of any U.S. president, and several have become bestsellers, including last year's "Our Endangered Values." These books have made Carter "quite wealthy," as he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1998 interview; they include poetry, nonfiction, memoirs and even a historical novel. But none has been as controversial as his latest title.
"I wanted to speak out on this issue, because it so urgently affects peace in the region and the whole world," he said. "And it would be presumptuous of me to ask to be on 'Larry King' or to talk to the L.A. Times to promote my ideas about the Middle East. If I write a book about it, however, this gives me a vast array of forums where I can express views and answer questions. The book gives me this opening."
The bottom line
At 247 pages, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" is a brisk read, offering a primer on Middle Eastern history and the roots of the bloody conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. The author, who contracted to write the book two years ago and finished it only recently, assigns responsibility for the conflict to both sides. But his bottom-line sentiments are clear: The so-called road map for peace has failed, he writes, because "Israel has been able to use it as a delaying tactic with an endless series of preconditions that can never be met ... and the United States has been able to give the impression of positive engagement in a 'peace process' which President Bush has announced will not be fulfilled during his time in office."
Carter, who won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, has earned international praise for his post-presidential work; the Carter Center, which he founded after losing the 1980 presidential race to Ronald Reagan, has monitored elections and campaigned against disease in 65 nations. It would be easy for him to simply bask in goodwill, but several of his efforts to negotiate cease-fires have raised the hackles of sitting presidents. And he conceded that his push for a debate on his book tour might be hopelessly quixotic, given Israel's strong support here. It is "almost impossible" for politicians to criticize Israel, Carter noted, adding that media coverage of the issue is "abominable."
Not surprisingly, several prominent critics have attacked Carter's book. Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, called it "a tendentious, dishonest and stupid book" in an online commentary; he was critical of the ex-president's "slightly goofy reliance" on his own religious faith as a way of judging Israeli society.
Alan Dershowitz, who said he has admired Carter's post-presidential work, commented online at the Huffington Post.
"This decent man has written such an indecent book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Dershowitz wrote. "I don't know why Jimmy Carter, who is generally a careful man, allowed so many errors and omissions to blemish his book."
Carter has gotten more favorable reviews, however. Booklist said his writing was "grounded in knowledge and wisdom" and "delivers a worthy game plan." Publishers Weekly called the book "informed and readable."
Simon & Schuster "accepts the fact that not everyone will agree with him on this issue," said Alice Mayhew, the veteran editor who worked with Carter.
"But we felt it was a topic that should be publicly addressed."
President Carter will appear at Vroman's Bookstore at 695 E. Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena at 7 p.m. Dec. 11. Information: (626) 449-5320 or www.vromansbookstore.com.