The Only Language They Understand

by Nathan Thrall

May 19, 2017

I. American Pressure

I would be willing to lose my election because I will alienate the Jewish community. . . . Thus, if necessary, be harder on the Israelis.
—President Jimmy Carter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance

When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in January 1977, no one expected that he would quickly obtain two of the most significant agreements in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the Framework for Peace in the Middle East, which served as the blueprint for the 1993 Oslo Accord.

Essential to Carter’s success was an approach wholly unlike those of his predecessors, one that was not expected by even the closest observers of the former peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. In his presidential memoirs, Carter wrote that prior to his election he “had no strong feelings about the Arab countries. I had never visited one and knew no Arab leaders.” Announcing his candidacy in December 1974, he highlighted his support for the integrity of Israel, to which he had traveled as governor of Georgia with his wife, Rosalynn, the previous year. The trip had special significance for Carter, a devout Southern Baptist who had studied the Bible since childhood. He stood atop the Mount of Olives, worshipped in Bethlehem, waded in the Jordan River, floated in the Dead Sea, studied excavations in Jericho, toured Nazareth, walked along the escarpments of the Golan Heights, and handed out Hebrew Bibles to young Israeli soldiers at a graduation ceremony in the West Bank military outpost at Beit El. He was briefed on Israeli politics and security by future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, foreign minister Abba Eban, former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, and prime minister Golda Meir. “My recent trip to Israel had a profound impact on my own life,” he wrote after returning to Atlanta. “It gave me a greater insight into and appreciation for the Jewish faith and the long and heroic struggle of the Jewish people for basic human rights and freedom.”

It came as something of a shock, then, when early in his tenure Carter displayed an unprecedented willingness to confront Israel and withstand pressure from its supporters in the American Jewish community and Congress. He was the first American president to call publicly for an almost total Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Of even greater concern to Israel, he was also the first to see the Palestinian issue as central to resolving the Middle East conflict and the first to speak of a Palestinian right to self-determination. Israeli nerves were rattled when, less than two months after taking office, he said publicly, “There has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.” Carter believed the Palestine Liberation Organization was ready for compromise. At a time when Israel boycotted the group, he used the terms “Palestinian” and “PLO” interchangeably, another cause for Israeli alarm. Among his top White House advisers were Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Quandt, two participants in a 1975 Brookings Institution study group that recommended far-reaching shifts in US policy, including a push for Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, Palestinian self-determination, and “strong encouragement” from the great powers.

The departure from the positions of previous administrations could hardly have been clearer. Carter’s predecessor Gerald Ford had issued a written assurance that the United States would “give great weight to . . . Israel remaining on the Golan Heights,” Syrian territory conquered in the 1967 war; Carter, by contrast, spoke of Israel’s return to the pre-1967 lines with only minor modifications. Ford promised Israel that the United States would not deal with the PLO until that body had recognized Israel’s right to exist, whereas Carter—to the great consternation of Israel and its American Jewish supporters—shook hands with the PLO representative at the UN, reached out through intermediaries to its leader, Yasir Arafat, and sought to include it in negotiations. Ford provided a letter to Yitzhak Rabin that has since been held up as a US commitment not to coerce or surprise Israel, giving it the right to review, if not veto, any US peace initiative. The letter stated that the United States would “make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals,” with a view to “refraining from putting forth” plans “that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” Carter, conversely, would seek to orchestrate what he called a “showdown” with Israel; he decided early in his administration that the United States should “put together our own concept of what should be done in the Middle East” and then “put as much pressure as we can on the different parties to accept the solution that we think is fair.”

Carter squeezed Israel harder on the Palestinian issue than any American president before or since. He believed Israel would make peace only if forced to by the United States, and he saw the denial of Palestinian self-determination as immoral. Summarizing his approach, he wrote:

Since I had made our nation’s commitment to human rights a central tenet of our foreign policy, it was impossible for me to ignore the very serious problems on the West Bank. The continued deprivation of Palestinian rights was not only used as the primary lever against Israel, but was contrary to the basic moral and ethical principles of both our countries. In my opinion it was imperative that the United States work to obtain for these people the right to vote, the right to assemble and to debate issues that affected their lives, the right to own property without fear of its being confiscated, and the right to be free of military rule. To deny these rights was an indefensible position for a free and democratic society.

Carter made the Arab-Israeli conflict a priority and brought to it a sense of urgency that his predecessors had felt only in reaction to a crisis or war. He spent more time on the issue than on any other during his presidency. Unsatisfied with the small, iterative steps preferred by the Israelis, he began planning for an international peace conference in Geneva that would include the PLO and aim for a comprehensive resolution. Early in his administration, Carter blocked two deals for US weapons sought by Israel, and in each case he stood his ground in the face of an intense lobbying effort. At their first meeting together as heads of state, in March 1977, Carter was tough on Rabin, telling him that the administration would hold to its position that settlements in the Occupied Territories were illegal, enjoining him to adopt a “fresh perspective” on a permanent solution, informing him that only minor modifications to the pre-1967 lines could be made, and pressing him to allow PLO leaders to attend the Geneva peace conference then being prepared. He expressed frustration at Rabin’s insistence that he would not deal with the PLO even if it accepted Israel’s legitimacy and UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for peace in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from territory occupied in 1967. Carter pointed out that the United States had talked to North Korea and that France had negotiated with the Algerian National Liberation Front, despite its use of terrorism. “It would be a blow to U.S. support for Israel,” Carter warned, “if you refused to participate in the Geneva talks over the technicality of the PLO being in the negotiations.” The Israeli delegation left the White House deeply distraught.

A series of warm meetings between Carter and Arab heads of state did little to allay Israel’s fears. Whereas Carter described Rabin as “very timid, very stubborn, and also somewhat ill at ease,” he wrote of Jordan’s King Hussein that “we all really liked him, enjoyed his visit, and believe he’ll be a strong and staunch ally.” Of meeting Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, Carter wrote, “It was a very interesting and enjoyable experience. There was a lot of good humor between us, and I found him to be very constructive in his attitude.” But Carter reserved his most glowing praise for the Egyptian president, who traveled to Washington on a state visit: “On April 4, 1977, a shining light burst on the Middle East scene for me. I had my first meetings with President Anwar Sadat.” In his diary, he wrote: “he was a charming and frank and also very strong and courageous leader who has never shrunk from making difficult public decisions. . . . I believe he’ll be a great aid if we get down to the final discussions on the Middle East. . . . my judgment is that he will deliver.” At the end of Sadat’s visit, Carter told his wife, “This had been my best day as President.” Several weeks later he would write, “My own judgment at this time is that the Arab leaders want to settle it and the Israelis don’t.”

Copyright © 2017 by Nathan Thrall. Excerpted from The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine

The Only Language They Understand Cover
Barnes and Noble


Nathan Thrall is a leading analyst of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books and is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, for which he has covered Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza since 2010. His writing and analysis are often featured in print and broadcast media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist, Time, CNN, Democracy Now!, PRI, and the BBC. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughters.