If you’ve got only eight minutes to confront a world leader whose impact and outlook you’ve despised and denounced for decades, then what’s the best way to take advantage of the interchange?
That was the dilemma facing me last Friday when former President Jimmy Carter agreed to a brief interview on my nationally syndicated radio program. We tried on many past occasions to book President Carter on the show but made no way headway with his representatives. This time, in the midst of the national publicity tour for his new book We Can Have Peace In The Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work, his handlers gave us twenty-four hours notice of his willingness to participate in a brief interview.
I’m certain that President Carter knows that I’ve spoken about him frequently on the air, almost always with contempt and derision. I’ve identified him as the worst president of the twentieth century – and perhaps of American history. Yes, I’ve described him repeatedly as “the worthless Jimmy Carter” and coined the deliberately disrespectful designation “The Worthless One.”
If nothing else, his determination to look past these insults in order to face down one of his harshest critics and to defend his controversial ideas demonstrated confidence and courage rarely displayed by his fellow liberal Democrats. Public figures like President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton have never agreed to conversations on my show (or any other conservative radio show) despite the fact that I’ve never assaulted them with anything like the vitriol I reserved for President Carter.
Preparing for our short conversation, I agonized over the right approach to the former president.
I could have thanked him, for instance, for helping to make me a Republican – confessing that I voted for him (somewhat reluctantly) in 1976, but felt so betrayed and disillusioned by the record of his administration that I never again supported another Democratic presidential candidate. One could make the case that no one – not even Ronald Reagan himself – did more to assure GOP success than President Carter. When he ran for re-election in 1980, the Republicans carried 44 of the fifty states (including Massachusetts, New York and California) and knocked off twelve incumbent Democratic Senators.
Beyond reminding Mr. Carter of this singular achievement, I could also note the approaching thirtieth anniversary of the nightmarish “Islamic Revolution” in Iran, and asked President Carter if he felt proud of his role in undermining the Shah, a consistent friend of America and Israel, and replacing him with the Mad Mullahs whose medieval theocracy still rules that benighted nation. In view of all the wretched developments since 1979, would President Carter now apologize for his devastatingly destructive role?
Then there were always pertinent issues regarding management of the economy: what advice could Jimmy Carter offer Barack Obama after leading the nation into a devastating and painful period that provided far more misery for typical Americans than the current crisis? The Carter era of “stagflation” (which reached its low point in the first two years under Mr. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan) brought much higher rates of unemployment, inflation, mortgage interest, and disruption of energy supplies than anything experienced under George W. Bush. In light of the appalling results of his domestic leadership, could President Carter single out a few glaring missteps that Mr. Obama should, at all costs, avoid?
And speaking of missteps, what about those two new cabinet departments launched under President Carter’s leadership—the Department of Energy and the Department of Education? After the expenditure of literally hundreds of billions by the twin bureaucracies, and the employment of tens of thousands of largely useless government workers in the notoriously unfocused new departments, would President Carter judge his innovations a success? Is it any accident that the two tasks undertaken by the new Carter departments – securing and diversifying energy supplies and improving the quality of public education – represent two of the most conspicuous and undeniable failures in American life over the last three decades?
I thought about these questions and much more in preparing for my precious eight minutes with a major historical figure (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) but kept returning to the official premise of our interview: the former president’s current book, and ongoing role as an angry critic of Israel. We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land is a brief, sloppily-written and utterly self-serving account of Mr. Carter’s efforts both during and after his presidency to promote an Israel-Arab settlement. His much-touted “Plan That Will Work” is little more than a restatement of the “Road Map,” already endorsed in principle by the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, the U.S., the European Union, the Russians and the U.N. To expand his large-print text to something like book length (214 pages), the former President inserts plenty of old U.N. Resolutions, texts of past peace plans, and ludicrously inaccurate historical assertions.
For instance, he describes the crucial year of 1939 as follows:
“Later, Palestinian Arabs demanded a halt to Jewish immigration and a ban on land sales to Jews, and in 1939 Britain announced severe restrictions on the Zionist movement and land purchases in Palestine. Violence erupted from Jewish militants, some led by Menachem Begin, the future prime minister of Israel.”
The idea that violence “erupted” only in 1939 and only from “Jewish militants” would receive no support from reputable historians – not even from those teaching at Islamic universities. Bloody Arab attacks on Jewish communities in the Holy Land began in 1920 and 21 (with more than 100 unarmed Jews massacred and 500 injured), then continued with more major riots against peaceful Jewish communities in 1929, 1931, and 1936 through 1939 (celebrated by Palestinians as “The Great Arab Revolt” – and claiming at least 500 more Jewish lives.) The restrictions on Jewish immigration at the height of Hitler’s persecution (the infamous “White Paper”) didn’t produce the bloodshed in the Holy Land – they resulted from violence by Palestinian gangs and militias as the British tried (in vain) to pacify the Arabs by giving them precisely what they wanted.
In addition to Mr. Carter’s appalling distortions of history, his new book delivers some unintentional hilarity as he describes his budding friendship with the terror-masters of Hamas. As the former President solemnly and hopefully recounts, “We pursued the concept of non-violent resistance of Hamas leaders and gave them documentation and video presentations of the successful experiences of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and others.” Reading this sentence, I considered asking the former president whether he ever got a movie review from the Hamas chieftains on the non-violent videos he gave them. In view of the continued daily rocket fire on Israel (in blatant violation of yet another one-sided cease fire) I suppose that the terrorists considered the edifying entertainment from Mr. Carter and ultimately rated it with two bombs down.
Given the strict limits on my time with Jimmy Carter, I resolved to concentrate on his bizarrely trusting and admiring attitude toward Hamas – despite its official designation as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, and even its own founding documents. The point I determined to drive home involved the folly of appeasement, of relying on unenforceable negotiated agreements with bloodthirsty adversaries who give no indication at all of reliability. The comparison that struck me most forcefully involved the Nazis and Hamas: if anything, the Germans of 1938 (the year of the Munich Conference) looked more trustworthy, more rational, more self-disciplined (certainly) and less anti-Semitic than the suicidal murderers of Hamas. After all, the Nazis at the time spoke only of driving Jews out of Germany, not killing them, while the Hamas Charter speaks openly of a religious obligation to hasten judgment day by murdering all Jews.
In any event, I prepared for this line of questioning when President Carter called my show (precisely on time) during a commercial break and we chatted for a few minutes off the air.
In the interests of full disclosure, I told him at the outset that I had been harshly critical of him in my public comments (no, I did not repeat the phrase “the Worthless One.”) Mr. Carter said he was well aware of my criticism and graciously welcomed the chance to talk about it on the show. I also felt obliged to tell him that my father and brother chose to make their lives in Israel some twenty years ago, so I couldn’t pretend to objectivity on the issues discussed in his book. I recounted to President Carter that my father, who served in the Navy in the Second World War and spent his work life as a physicist in California, decided to retire to Jerusalem. Mr. Carter responded to that description by saying, “then I’ve got something in common with your father, because I’m also a Navy man.” I could have answered by noting that they also shared a passion for physics (which Mr. Carter avidly studied prior to his service on atomic submarines) and that my dad actually voted for Mr. Carter twice, but I didn’t get the chance as we came back from the break.
A transcript of our interchange follows:
MM: President Carter, thank you very much for joining us.
Carter: It's good to be with you. Thank you.
MM: Let me just go at this directly concerning some of the material in your book and also some of the comments you've made already discussing the book. I assume that you would join in the historical consensus that it was a terrible mistake for western leaders to trust and rely upon negotiated settlements with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis back in 1938.
Carter: Yes, I certainly would.
MM: My question is, why then do you have more confidence in agreements with Hamas, given the fact that, by any standard, Hamas is more openly anti-Semitic, more openly violent and less responsible than the Nazis appeared to be in 1938?
Carter: Well, I don't agree with that premise. Do I have to agree with the premise to answer the question?
MM: No, not at all.
Carter: Okay, well I know the Hamas leaders, I've talked to them in depth and I've shared what I've learned from them with the chief negotiator between Israel and Hamas—and that is Omar Suleiman in Egypt. I went over to the mid-east in April. I first stopped at Sderot with my wife and saw the missiles coming in—and I condemned the firing of those missiles as terrorism. The mayor of Sderot called a town meeting for me and he said that Israel was neither negotiating with Hamas, nor punishing Hamas. And I promised those people there that I would go and meet with Hamas leaders and try to get the missiles stopped. So, to make a long story short, I did. I went to Damascus, met with the top leaders of Hamas—the politburo members—and I finally got them to agree to depart from their previous policy of insisting on a cease fire in Gaza—and in the West Bank…Israel would supply the full quantity of food and medicine and water and fuel they had when they were in charge of Gaza.
MM: President Carter, with all due respect...
Carter: Go ahead.
MM: You've read the Hamas Charter.
Carter: Yes, and I read the charter of the PLO too, that still stated the existence 5 years after the Olso agreement.
MM: Right but it's been changed since Olso—afterward. But the Hamas Charter includes more anti-Semitic passages than anything in “Mein Kampf.” Mein Kampf never talked about massacring all Jews. The Hamas Charter talks about that.
Carter: If you wanna talk about that ancient history, fine, but if you want to talk about what's going on now--
MM: --Well that's still the Hamas Charter, even Mr. Marzouk said they haven't changed it.
Carter: When I was there, they authorized me to make a statement for them in Israel, which I did when I got back to Jerusalem at a very large meeting of the foreign policy organization in Israel. And they made a simultaneous statement—the leader of Hamas, to Al Jazeera and a large collection of news media--that Hamas will accept any agreement, any peace agreement negotiated between Abu Mazen and Israel, if the agreement is submitted to the people in the West Bank in Gaza in a referendum and approved. That's what they have agreed to do. And they also told me, not publicly, that they would accept Israel's right to exist and to live in peace, but they would not recognize Israel diplomatically unless Israel was prepared to recognize Hamas and Fatah diplomatically. And as you know, Israel has never even recognized the Palestinian Authority, they've only recognized the PLO.
MM: Okay, President Carter, the section of the Hamas Charter—and I'm holding it in front of me—that I'm particularly concerned about---
Carter: ---I'm not going to try to defend the Hamas Charter any more than I would try to defend the PLO charter, because it calls for the destruction of Israel---
MM: ---It calls for the murder of individual Jews. It calls for the murder of all Jews so that judgment day can come. It says, "The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah's promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said, “The day of judgment will not come about until Muslims kill the Jews (and the passage adds: “When the Jews will hide behind stones and trees, the sones and trees will say, O Muslim, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”)
Carter:--If you want to talk about ancient history, Christians believe that in the second coming, Christ can't come back to the Holy Land until all Jews are either dead or become Christian.
MM: Nobody is calling upon the State of Israel to rely for its security on a promise from people who believe that. But you think that the State of Israel, and the United States of America, should count on promises by Hamas. Right?
Carter: As you possibly know, the United States does not recognize or, at this time, does not deal with Hamas. But, the leaders of the United States are sure—along with anyone else who is rational about it—that you can't have a permanent peace in the mid-east unless Hamas and its supporters are involved, because Hamas now has the support, probably, of a majority of Palestinians, and the Palestinians have to negotiate with Israel.
MM: Would you advise Israeli leaders to feel confident about promises from Hamas?
Carter: I know that in last April--you can look it up yourself if you will--there was a public opinion poll done in Israel reported in Haaretz where 64% of the Israeli public, including your relatives who live over there, I presume, voted that Israel should be dealing directly with Hamas--should be negotiating with Hamas. And the leaders of the three top Israeli intelligence agencies said the same thing.
MM: There's not a single Israeli politician in any of the leading parties who believes that, President Carter. I'm sorry that our time is up. I wish we could continue the conversation.....
I deeply regret that the commercial came up and the interview drew to a close before I could correct some of the misimpressions the former President conveyed. The Israelis who favor negotiating with Hamas do so on the same basis that the Bush administration suggested it could countenance such negotiation: only if Hamas renounced violence, recognized Israel, and committed to honor past agreements signed in the name of the Palestinian People. President Carter’s support for the notion that Hamas will recognize Israel only when Israel recognizes Hamas is a pathetic effort to equate a rag-tag group of terrorists who can’t even govern the tiny territory of Gaza with a prosperous, powerful and democratic nation-state that’s been a member of the United Nations for 60 years.
I also should have expressed greater indignation at Mr. Carter twice dismissing the Hamas Charter as “ancient history” even though the leaders of that organization have made no effort to alter it. In fact, they illustrate their commitment to the principles of that extremist document every day, with their profoundly self-destructive launch of rockets toward Israeli civilians.
In another sense, “ancient history” is always relevant to the Middle East since both sides base their claims on remembered greatness and perceived grievance going back for centuries. Israel and her most fervent Christian supporters make no apologies for feeling animated and inspired by ancient prophecies, and the fulfillment of those visions by the modern Jewish state.
There’s also a timeless, eternal quality to the nature of the ongoing struggle—which is, at its heart, a conflict between life and death, peace and war, good and evil. The recent fighting in Gaza highlighted the contrast between the two sides, with Hamas trying to gain by deliberately maximizing casualties (both among Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians) while Israel could succeed only by minimizing death and injury (among its own soldiers as well as among the civilians in Gaza). Jimmy Carter’s moral blindness leads him to equate those who celebrate the suicides of their own children and the murder of their neighbors’ kids, with those who mourn violence against any innocents.
Judea Pearl, the father of beheaded American journalist Danny Pearl, observed this week’s seventh anniversary of his son’s murder with a powerful piece in the Wall Street Journal. He notes that “Those around the world who mourned for Danny in 2002 genuinely hoped that Danny’s murder would be a turning point in the history of man’s inhumanity to man, and that the targeting of innocents to transmit political messages would quickly become, like slavery and human sacrifice, an embarrassing relic of a bygone era.”
Unfortunately, that transformation has yet to occur and Professor Pearl blames advocates of relativism and moral equivalence like Jimmy Carter. “Acts of terror, according to Mr. Carter, are no longer taboo, but effective tools for terrorists to address perceived injustices.”
Regardless of his dignity as a former president and his personal graciousness, this point of view-- obfuscating the essential, eternal distinction between terrorist death cults and those who resist them—counts as the worst sort of folly and denial. It is, in fact, undeniably… worthless.