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Who’s Afraid of Jimmy Carter?

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Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and Carter in Damascus on April 18, 2008.  

“I think it’s fairly obvious what they’re trying to do,” says Powell. “There’s a pretty narrow appeal here. If you look at those people who are unfavorably inclined toward President Carter, they are the Republican base that McCain is trying desperately to win over. I assume that they’re also hoping that they will be able to use this to leverage increased Republican support in the American Jewish community.”

The “Carter effect” on the Jewish vote has proved politically useful in the past. In the Democratic primary leading up to the 1980 presidential election, Carter, who had trounced his opponent Ted Kennedy in almost every other primary, lost New York in a landslide after Kennedy began attacking Carter for supporting a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements.

The most important fact about the Jewish vote in America, according to Jeffrey S. Helmreich of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “lies in the fact that it is a uniquely swayable bloc.” In an article written after the contested 2000 Florida election, he wrote, “The issue of support for Israel [by a candidate] has proven capable of spurring a sizable portion of Jews to switch parties—in large enough numbers to tip the scales in national or statewide elections.” At a get-together of Jewish supporters in Beverly Hills earlier this summer, a flyer was passed out that distanced Obama from the idea of direct talks with Hamas and refuted the assertion that he supported Carter’s recent diplomatic initiative. “Our campaign does not call [Carter] an adviser,” the document read, “nor does he call himself one.”

Since I was 18 years old, I have taught the Bible,” Carter says as we discuss his work in the Middle East. “For the last fifteen or twenty years, I have taught every Sunday when I was home or near my own house, so that would be 35 or 40 times per year. Half of those Sundays, the text comes from the Hebrew Bible. I have had a deep personal interest in the Holy Land and in the teachings of the Hebrew people. God has a special position for the Jewish people, the Hebrews, or whatever. I know the difference between ancient Israel and Judaea, and I know the history. I don’t have any problem with the Jewish people.”

But by publishing his Palestine book and then meeting back-to-back with Hamas and Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, Carter has further angered his Jewish detractors. This September, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz will come out with his 29th book—The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace. Like many others in the Jewish community, Dershowitz cannot stomach Carter’s comparison of South African apartheid to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“If a guy writes a book and calls you a name in the title and then publicly meets with people who think your existence is a blot on humanity, you start to get the feeling that he might not be on your side,” says Zev Chafets, who headed Israel’s government press office under the late prime minister Menachem Begin. Like Dershowitz, Chafets believes that Carter’s humanitarian empathy is drastically one-sided. “People like Carter, liberal Christians, they really identify virtue with weakness, and they think they have an obligation to do justice by being on the side of the weak. They never entertain the notion that the weak can be, say, Fascists.”

In many ways, Carter can be surprisingly tone-deaf to Jewish sensitivities in a geopolitical arena where he knows perfectly well the vulnerabilities of all parties concerned. He often appears to lack the skepticism of the seasoned diplomat and can seem complacent when he talks about former or current supporters of suicide bombings, car bombings, and assassinations. I ask the former president how he liked Khaled Mashal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas.

“Oh, he was very nice,” Carter says. “He has a Ph.D. in physics; his deputy is a cardiologist.”

Of Mahmoud al-Zahar, another top Hamas official, Carter had this to say: “Very polite and grateful that I was able to talk to him.”

Several of the various promises that the Hamas leaders gave Carter in April were retracted publicly almost immediately, but Carter betrays no dismay. “Yes, a spokesman for Hamas denied a couple of things Mashal had told me,” Carter says. “And I went back to Mashal, and he said that there were multiple people that talked to TV stations and so forth, and that his commitment to me was fine. Well, there are multiple voices that speak for Israel, multiple voices that speak for our country as well.”

For Dershowitz and others, Carter seems at best a naïve meddling do-gooder who’s sticking his nose into a mess he doesn’t understand. To them, it looked like Hamas was having it both ways: chatting up Carter (and through him the international community) about the possibilities for peace while telling its Palestinian constituency that the substantive elements of the talks were meaningless.


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