JERUSALEM - Lost in the recent coverage of the Iranian election results and Obama’s and Netanyahu’s speeches was the visit by former US President Jimmy Carter to the Neve Daniel community in the settlement of Gush Etzion. Carter’s visit was condemned both by those on the left, who were horrified to see him visit a settlement, and by many settlers who view him as an implacable enemy of Israel in general and of them specifically. Nonetheless, the visit has great significance which can perhaps best be summed up by Carter’s parting words to his hosts: “I have been fortunate this afternoon in learning the perspectives that I did not have”. The visit demonstrated, especially to the settlers, the power of dialogue to change perceptions between parties that seem so far apart.
This is all the more significant because, despite the former president’s role in forging a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, there has been much bad blood between Carter and supporters of the Jewish State. His book ‘Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid’ laid blame for the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the shoulders of Israel. He used the politically explosive term ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a term normally levelled at Israel only by its most severe critics or by those who seek to delegitimise it. The book provoked an intense backlash, exemplified by Yariv Nornberg, a former graduate assistant in conflict resolution at the Carter Center who, in an open letter to Carter, stated that the former president was certainly “no friend of Israel”.
Carter’s declared intention in visiting Neve Daniel was to “listen and let his views be known”. His views on the settlements are well known. In fact they are considered so hostile by some that before his visit a petition was circulated among Gush Etzion residents calling upon local council head, Shaul Goldstein, not to meet with Carter as he is “a clear supporter of our enemies”. “We cannot allow ourselves to be the instruments of his rehabilitation”, continues the petition. “We must tell him: 'You are working against the Jewish nation in its land, and you cannot be an honest broker’.”
During Carter’s visit to Gush Etzion he saw a living, thriving, and prosperous community. He met with council head, Shaul Goldstein, who did not heed the petition, world renowned Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) head Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, local resident Sherri Mandel whose son Koby was bludgeoned to death with rocks, and Ruth Gillis, whose husband was killed by a Palestinian sniper as he drove home. After hearing their stories Carter declared: “I recognize that their suffering is taking place in an area where strife and misunderstanding and animosity exist.”
All too often, Israeli settlers and their supporters fall into the trap of seeing the entire world as being against them including the United Nations, the international community, and the Israeli left. It becomes all too easy to preach solely to the choir – those who already support the settlers such as many in the US evangelical community. However such disengagement from the broader Israeli public, and especially the international community, also makes it easy for the settlers to be typecast as villains, international pariahs and outlaws.
Yet, in the complex human mosaic that makes up the Arab-Israeli conflict, the settlers too deserve to be heard. Israeli settlers do have their own narratives to tell, consisting of dreams, aspirations, and stories. Many may even want peace – and may be willing to make compromises in order to achieve it. Irrespective of one’s views of the settlements, the voices of Israeli settlers need to be heard by those who want to make a positive difference in this conflict.
The visit certainly did not turn Carter into an admirer of settlements. However he did see another side of the Arab-Israeli conflict and upon leaving stated that "this particular settlement area is not one I ever envision being abandoned or changed over into Palestinian territory".
Carter’s visit is evidence that engagement can make a real impact and is a worthy example of the type of calm and respectful dialogue that Israeli settlers and their supporters need to have with others who do not understand or appreciate their point of view. It is time to stop feeling that the ‘whole world is against us anyways’. Instead, it is time to begin a meaningful dialogue.
* Chaim Landau has a Post-graduate degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He is an American-Israeli Middle East analyst living in Jerusalem and has previously worked as a Legacy Heritage Fellow. Currently he is a PresenTense fellow developing ‘Perspectives Israel.’ This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 02 July 2009, www.commongroundnews.org.
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