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The return of the man from Georgia

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Ahead of the Elders' visit to the Middle East, Jimmy Carter speaks to Akiva Eldar from Haaretz about his dismay at the standstill in the peace process and what has changed in the three decades since the Camp David agreement.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, will be visiting Israel next week, but he won't be welcomed by all. Policy-makers in Jerusalem don't like hearing what Carter has to say about what they are doing to the Camp David agreements he shepherded 32 years ago. They don't want to know what the heads of Hamas in Damascus will be telling him and his fellow Elders - an independent group of eminent and experienced global leaders - concerning an agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or about Gilad Shalit's condition. At best, President Shimon Peres will receive the delegation for a courtesy meeting.

Toward the end of September, three days before his 86th birthday, Carter was hospitalised in Cleveland after complaining of abdominal pain during a flight. He was on a book tour around the country, speaking about his newest offering, "White House Diary," in which he chides his two Democratic successors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for their impotence in the face of construction in the settlements. This week he spoke with Haaretz from his offices at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Akiva Eldar: Mr. President, how is your health?

Jimmy Carter: My health is perfect.

AE: How do we look from Atlanta this week?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: The new change with the current government coalition causes most of the concern .... I don't really see much immediate prospect of reaching an agreement. Several of the demands put forward by the Israeli government are new: One is to declare Israel is a Jewish state. Another is that the settlement construction continues throughout the negotiations. The third is that Israel maintains complete control of the Jordan Valley, and the fourth is that Israel maintains control of air, sea and land access to what will remain of Palestine .... I think that through Olmert's administration we reached a possible state to make an agreement with Abbas, which was both encouraging and compatible with the agreements we signed earlier.

AE: During the Camp David talks, you were not afraid to exercise some force, you didn't shy away from enforcing your will. Do you think this is the way Obama should act?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: It's not the only way to do things - [president George H.W.] Bush got a good move made in Madrid [at the 1991 summit there.] I know I was the only one at the time to get an agreement but I also had two courageous leaders for negotiations - [prime minister Menachem] Begin and [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat .... I don't understand the current restraints exercised on Netanyahu by Shas and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman's party. Begin was strong enough to act on his own, and later so was prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and others as well. Leaders who were personally strong enough to overcome restraints placed on them by coalition partners could get things done.

AE: When you signed the Camp David agreement there were fewer than 40 settlements, with 20,000 people. Now there are 250 settlements and outposts, and 300,000 settlers living in the West Bank.

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: I would not have believed it at the time .... In my new book I mention that even back at the time of the Camp David agreement, I could tell that that was a major obstacle to overcome - many ministers and leaders in Begin's coalition and in other places were fully committed to the fact that Israel should retain the West Bank. Yet Israel never wanted Gaza .... The Palestinian land needs to be contiguous and provide viable living peacefully alongside the nation of Israel. To occupy a major portion of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, makes it impossible to have the two-state solution that we contemplated .... Begin signed the treaty saying that the Palestinians could have full autonomy, that the Israeli military and political forces would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.

AE: Did you ever encounter an Israeli demand that the Arabs recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: This demand is completely new. The first time I heard of it, I was in East Jerusalem after Obama's Cairo speech, to which Netanyahu responded with a call for the Arabs and Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state - which was a move probably initiated by Lieberman and his party. I don't see how it's possible - there are 1.5 million Arab citizens in Israel, and 320,000 who are neither Jews nor Muslims - so I don't know if it will be possible. For the Arabs to acknowledge that the Arabs who live in Israel are Jewish will be very difficult.

AE: What would you do if you were in the White House now?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: I would try to take a balanced view between the Palestinians and the Arabs, on the one side, and the Israelis, on the other. I would push for enforcing the United Nations Security Council's Resolution 242 from 1967, in line with the demands spelled out by the international Quartet ... as well as in the Arab peace initiative put forward eight years ago. I think the 1967 borders could be modified, leaving more than half of the settlements in Israel. These types of conditions should receive support - the U.S. has already agreed to that.

AE: Does the reason that American administrations haven't acted to enforce those resolutions stem from Henry Kissinger's observation that in Israel there is no foreign policy - only domestic?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: That statement applies to more than one country. The U.S. as well. It didn't apply when I was in office - I was strengthened by my relationship with Israeli and Egyptian leaders. But that will always apply. That is the same right now, and it applies to U.S. policy in the Middle East as well.

AE: In recent years, under your leadership, the Carter Center has been working hard to advance democracy around the world. Isn't it somewhat naive to try to impose democracy on Muslim and other countries where there is no place for democracy in their traditions?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: I think the primary elections held in Arab communities - all three monitored in Palestine, one when Arafat was elected, then when Abbas was, and in 2006 when Hamas was elected - have been honest and fair and open, free of violence. In the last one [Hamas] was not able to take office, I don't think it's a religious matter. For example, the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, and they had good elections that we monitored. Lebanon also had honest and fair elections and basically a peaceful process.

AE: Will you try your luck again at getting Gilad Shalit out?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: I'm the only one who ever delivered a letter to Shalit and from him; I don't know if others have. I always try to find out information. I always try to get news. I will be meeting Hamas in Syria and we will probably talk about it. They [always] bring up the 10,000 [Palestinian] prisoners Israel is holding.

AE: You supported Obama in the presidential elections. How would you advise him to act in order to improve his situation in light of the erosion in his public standing?

Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter: At this time in my presidency I had 66 percent of support, so I had a very good mid-term election. [Bill] Clinton was lower than Obama and so was [Ronald] Reagan. It goes up and down. I have no advice to give to Obama. I think he is a much better politician than I am. I think [the Democrats] are going to suffer serious defeats in less than a month - it will not be good for Democrats at all - but after that I believe he will gain popularity again and has an excellent chance to be re-elected in 2012. I think he's going to have to be forceful in going back to the original premises on which he was elected. I don't think the Middle East is on the top of the agenda. For me, the Middle East is always on the top of the agenda.

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