15 March 2007

14 March 2007 – Joseph Lelyveld on Carter

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books features a review of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The review, by former New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld, seems a bit overdue—since the controversy over the book is already three months old—but is the most thorough I have yet seen. Lelyveld wrote extensively about South African apartheid and also seems fairly well-informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have Lelyveld’s most famous book, Move Your Shadow, on my bookshelf. I found it at a used book store in Cape Town. The book both reflected and contributed to the deep sense of revulsion that thinking people felt about South Africa at the time. I have to confess I’ve never been able to get through it: its descriptions of apartheid society seemed overwrought with self-righteous certainty, and hence rather tedious.

In Carter’s book, Lelyveld is faced with a rather similar kind of rhetorical excess as he explores whether Carter’s use of the “A-word,” as he calls it, is justified. He distinguishes between two uses of the word to describe Israel: the “Durban” usage, which refers to all of Israel as an “apartheid state,” and the Carter usage, which—taking Carter at his word—refers only to Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Lelyveld dismisses the Durban usage quickly and firmly, referring to Benjamin Pogrund’s 2005 article in Focus (though not Pogrund’s reply to Chris McGreal in the Guardian, which was presumably more widely read. The Focus reference, which I’ve often cited, along with Lelyveld’s introduction referring to websites that argue the apartheid claim, made me wonder if he had consulted this blog in his research.)

Lelyveld also points out that Carter hardly discusses apartheid in his book at all, and that the book is saturated with self-flattery. The book is “more memoir than tract . . . and more tract than a serious excursion into the conflict,” Lelyveld writes, as Carter reveals an ego that is “full of vigor” as he intimates that conflict would have been solved if the voters had just been wise enough to re-elect him in 1980.

But Lelyveld does not reject Carter’s use of the “A-word” with regard to the West Bank and Gaza. He acknowledges that even many serious critics of Israeli policy are uncomfortable with the analogy. Lelyveld’s main complaint, however, is not that Carter made the comparison, but that he did not make it well enough, and Lelyveld devotes a great deal of space to “fill[ing] in the blanks” in Carter’s argument.

For example, he writes that by neglecting a full exploration of Israeli land grabbing in the West Bank, Carter missed one of the clearest parallels to apartheid. “What could have been his most incisive argument in support of his provoking use of the A-word turns up in the pages of his book as little more than an aside,” he suggests. He then goes on to provide several other connections that Carter could have provided.

But Lelyveld does not bother to fill in blanks that might refute Carter’s claim, and it is soon clear that he shares Carter’s views in general, if not in detail. He criticizes Carter for treating Palestinians with greater empathy, yet shares Carter’s view that “it’s up to Israel to make the next move, if only to demonstrate that they’re not permanently trapped in their old security doctrines”—as if the disengagement never happened.

Like Carter, Lelyveld refers to the security barrier as a “wall,” and minimizes its role in reducing attacks, agreeing with Carter that Hamas is to be given “as much or even more” credit. He argues, as Carter does, that Israel’s policies have “gone beyond” South African apartheid, as if Israel shared the same dream of “strict separation.” He even implies Palestinians in Israeli jails are political prisoners.

Lelyveld does not comment on the difference between Palestinian and South African resistance, only briefly considering whether nonviolence might be a better approach He suggests weakly that “nonviolence could hardly have accomplished less for the Palestinians than suicide bombings, ” which he condemns on tactical but not moral grounds, since they cause “visceral horror . . . among Israel’s supporters” and others.

This is not a critique, but an admonishment: Lelyveld wants Carter’s argument to carry more intellectual weight and emotional appeal than it does. He sees the pitfalls in the argument that the occupation is the root cause of the problem, but he believes President Bush has abandoned diplomacy in the name of fighting terror, and he wants to shout “from the rooftops” that the occupation is bad and something must be done.

But what? Lelyveld criticises Carter for offering decades-old peace proposals, but then reverts to the knee-jerk “Israel first” position. I say “knee-jerk” because Lelyveld does not bother to consider what the Palestinians might do. He absolves them of all responsibility for past failures and denies them any agency in solving present-day problems—such as the Fatah-Hamas civil war, which has little to do with Israel.

Lelyveld is rightfully skeptical of the word “tragedy” to describe the occupation, arguing that the term suggests “that the settlements were not the result of deliberate and stealthy planning but simply good intentions gone wrong.” However, he refuses to see that Palestinian terror—he uses the word “terror” only once, and in quotes—is not just about the occupation but serves a radical and genocidal agenda.

It is interesting that Lelyveld deletes the colon in the book’s title, just as Carter claims he wanted to. (I’m not sure what difference it makes.) But suppose we left it there and inverted the question, asking the Palestinians themselves: peace or apartheid? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What can you do in the meantime to improve your situation? Somehow, these questions are never posed.

Lelyveld’s review is a thoughtful one, among the best of a generally bad bunch. But it reflects the left-wing tendency to expect less of, and to side with, the “weaker” party, however blameworthy. It also reflects the typical unwillingness of the New York Review of Books to regard terror as a serious threat. Lelyveld pans Carter’s book but elevates its central premise, leaving the “A-word” exactly where Carter wanted it.

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