Former President Jimmy Carter has crossed the line into outright anti-Semitism as he promotes his controversial new book, �Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,� according to at least one major Jewish leader.
Facing attacks from pro-Israel heavyweights, Mideast analysts and book reviewers for what many see as a one-sided, factually flawed analysis of the conflict, Carter has upped the ante by claiming that Israeli policies in the West Bank are �even worse� than the apartheid policies of the former government in South Africa�and accusing pro-Israel groups of stifling legitimate debate on U.S. Mideast policy.
Speaking in an Israel Radio interview, Carter cited roads connecting more than 200 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and rules prohibiting Palestinians from crossing the roads, which he said �perpetuates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa.�
That has led to an escalating response from the Jewish side as the book, Carter�s 21st, climbs the charts to No. 7 on the New York Times best-seller list, up from No. 11 last week.
�I believe he is engaging in anti-Semitism,� said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. �For a man of his stature and supposed savvy to hold forth that the issues of Israel and the Middle East have not been discussed and debated because Jews and Zionists have closed off means of discussion is just anti-Semitism.�
Foxman particularly objected to Carter�s claim in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that while issues of peace are hotly and freely debated in Israel, �for the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee [sic] and the absence of any significant contrary voices.�
That, Foxman argued, is anti-Semitism because it reinforces the anti-Semitic canard that �our power is so great that you can�t even talk about these issues.�
Foxman said that Carter�s success in promoting the book refutes his claims about Jewish control of the debate.
�If we�re so powerful, why is he traveling across the country, appearing on every television show in the world?� he asked.
On Tuesday Carter met with the Phoenix Board of Rabbis and repeated his criticisms of Israeli policies in the West Bank.
But he also promised to be �more vocal� about his admiration for Israel as a democracy while speaking during his book tour, according to one participant. Carter also promised to be clearer in his denunciation of Palestinian terrorism.
The group presented Carter with a copy of a siddur for Jewish military service personnel. The meeting concluded with the group holding hands in a circle and praying.
Initially, Jewish leaders worried mostly that the use of the word �apartheid� in the title would serve as a rallying cry for anti-Israel forces in this country and damage Israel�s standing around the world.
Since the book�s release and Carter�s appearance on the talk show circuit, some leaders now worry more that he will provide added legitimacy to the chorus of voices claiming that Israel and the pro-Israel lobby here are skewing U.S. foreign policy in ways contrary to the national interest.
�What�s particularly worrisome is the accretion factor,� said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Harris said Carter�s charges come �on the heels of Walt and Mearsheimer,� the two prominent foreign policy academics whose April article accusing the pro-Israel lobby of distorting U.S. foreign policy continues to gain traction with groups on the right and the left.
Harris said Carter�s views could give added and unwarranted credibility to claims the pro-Israel lobby is damaging U.S. national interests and squelching the views of those who publicly make that case.
Several Jewish leaders said sales of the Carter book have been boosted by growing interest in the Walt-Mearsheimer analysis�and in the report of the Iraq Study Group, released last week, which links progress in getting U.S. troops out of Iraq to renewed efforts to push Israel and her neighbors to the bargaining table.
�The surprise is that Tim Russert [host of NBC�s Meet the Press] and others are taking this book so seriously,� said Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, a group that does pro-Israel outreach work. �But it�s not just because of Jimmy Carter; it�s the timing, at a time when the Baker report was just about to come out, when there were rumors about recommendations to put more pressure on Israel. From Carter�s perspective, he got lucky.�
Laszlo-Mizrahi called Carter�s analysis �lazy,� but said it gains currency because �he is a former president, because he is someone who, after leaving the presidency, went out and did very good work on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. He has a very clean image, but now he�s selling a very dirty rag. And he has a very large megaphone.�
Laszlo-Mizrahi said Jewish groups need to counter both specific assertions in the book�such as Carter�s claim that Israel did not make a credible offer to the Palestinians during the 2000 Camp David peace talks�and the broader charge that the pro-Israel lobby is at the center of a conspiracy to shut down legitimate debate on Mideast issues.
Some Jewish groups are mounting an aggressive counterattack to do just that.
Foxman said his group will �follow President Carter as he criss-crosses the country to bring attention to his skewing of the Middle East.� ADL�s primary weapon: ads in major newspapers claiming that �there�s only one honest thing about President Carter�s new book: the criticism.�
Others are working quietly, behind the scenes, to line up prominent political figures to speak out against Carter�s harsh view of Israel.
One top Jewish leader said that he is hoping former President Bill Clinton can be enlisted to speak out against the apartheid charge�and �speak the truth about what happened at Camp David in 2000.�
Former Carter administration officials and associates of the former president after he left office in 1981 have also been approached.
Stuart Eizenstat, Carter�s domestic policy chief, said in an e-mail that he has �expressed my strong views to President Carter privately about his book,� but declined public comment.
Last week Kenneth Stein, a longtime fellow at the Carter Center in Atlanta and its former director, resigned, calling the book �replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.�
Stein, a top Mideast scholar, said that his �continued association with the Center leaves the impression that I am sanctioning a series of egregious errors and polemical conclusions which appeared in President Carter�s book. I cannot allow that impression to stand.�
AJC director Harris said Jewish groups face a difficult strategic choice in dealing with the outspoken former president at a moment when pro-Israel forces are already being accused of stifling debate.
�We don�t want to be silent as he says these things,� Harris said. �He is getting tremendous attention from the media; I�ve never seen so many softballs thrown to a guest on the talk shows.�
At the same time, he said, the 2004 controversy surrounding Mel Gibson�s controversial film �The Passion of the Christ� offers a cautionary tale about how an aggressive campaign to counter anti-Israel or anti-Jewish slurs by prominent public figures can backfire.
�It�s tricky,� Harris said. �The Mel Gibson story should be a reminder to those whose intentions are good, but whose actions may only lead to an increase in book sales.�
Although Carter uses the word �apartheid� in the title, he does not say in the book that Israel is an apartheid state. �I am referring to Palestine and not to Israel,� he writes. �Arabs living in Israel are citizens of Israel and have full citizenship, voting and legal rights, and so forth.�
That led Harris to accuse Carter�s use of the word apartheid to be �false advertising.�
While the Carter book has roiled Jewish organizational boardrooms across the country, its footprint in Washington has been almost undetectable.
�It�s not having a significant impact here,� said Jess Hordes, ADL�s Washington director. �For people in the political world, these are not particularly new positions for Carter, and they are easily discounted.�
Hordes pointed to the top Democratic leaders who quickly and forcefully distanced themselves from Carter�s views, including incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) -- a longtime critic of Israel�s policies.
And he said Carter�s perspective is largely discounted by Washington�s political and foreign policy elites, as well as by the vast majority in Congress.
Not all Jewish leaders have rallied around the anti-Carter flag.
In an op-ed, Rabbi Michael Lerner, leader of the Tikkun Community, called the attacks on Carter �astounding� and repeated Carter�s claim that he is not calling Israel an apartheid state, but merely referring to the �de facto apartheid situation� in the West Bank.
�Jimmy Carter is speaking the truth as he knows it, and doing a great service to the Jews,� he wrote. n