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The Blood of Abraham: Insights Into the Middle East : by Jimmy Carter (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95; 224 pp.)

April 07, 1985|MARVIN SEID | Seid is a Times editorial writer

The unfinished business and unfulfilled hopes of Camp David haunt Jimmy Carter. The peace process that he helped move forward in 1978 and 1979, and that seemed as it evolved to hold such bright promise for the future of the Middle East, has long since come to an inconclusive halt. Egypt and Israel have indeed ended their belligerency, but the goal of a larger regional peace remains as elusive as ever. The blood of Abraham that flows through the veins of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, Carter writes, continues to be spilled in conflicts over the patriarch's inheritance. Why, and what Carter thinks is needed to change this dismally familiar state of affairs, is the subject of this book.

The former President has spent a lot of time talking with leaders and scholars from the Middle East. He has made a number of visits to the area, walking the land that he knew from intensive Bible study, seeing for himself what it is all about. His views are shaped by compassion for all those, past and present, who have suffered in this cockpit of religious and nationalistic antagonisms. Like others, Carter believes that the Palestinian issue is central to the conflict and that there can be no resolution without its just settlement, specifically including "self-determination" for the population of the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Like others, he believes that the reality of Israel must at the same time be accepted by its Arab neighbors, with open acknowledgement of Israel's right to live in peace within recognized and secure borders.

Like others, Carter has no trouble defining the issues and relating the fears, grievances and ambitions that he has heard expressed on all sides. And like others, he can outline a sensible methodology for accommodation. What he cannot do is describe feasible means for moving the participants in the conflict to effective action. In the end, he can only put his faith in the eventual triumph of good will, reasoned self-interest, outside pressures and hope.

An implicit theme throughout this book is the current absence of Middle Eastern leaders who are able and ready to act innovatively and decisively. Carter's model for such a leader is clearly the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who moved boldly to break the enormously costly and unproductive cycle of violence and mistrust. Sadat was only partially successful. He regained the Sinai for Egypt by trading Israel recognition and peace. But largely because of Israel's failure to live up to the Camp David accords, Carter suggests, he was unable to break the stalemate over the West Bank. The one chance for that happening now is if leaders in Israel and among the Arab parties are determined to see it happen. The prospects for that are less than encouraging.

Israel is largely paralyzed under the rule of a "National Unity" government that in fact only reflects the absence of a clear electoral consensus. King Hussein of Jordan has no interest in becoming the point man for a peace initiative that does not have the open blessing--and protection--of broad Palestinian support, and the backing of other Arab states, which, up to now, have shown no interest in attracting the wrath of Syria and other rejectionists. The Palestinians themselves have increasingly become hostage to the exclusive representational role conferred at a 1974 Arab summit meeting upon a now-divided Palestine Liberation Organization. But the PLO, as Carter sees it, has reached a dead end. Its use of terror and its insistence on confrontation and inflexibility have achieved nothing for Palestinians living under Israeli rule, and its tired pretenses increasingly invite international boredom. "The PLO leaders," Carter writes, "continue to act against the interests of those whom they represent while refusing to accept any responsibility for the lack of progress."

What might break this deadlock? Anticipating recent statements from Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, Carter proposes that the United States must take the initiative in peace talks and accept "deep involvement" in a reinvigorated process directed at a comprehensive Middle East peace. Those talks would be open to "all parties to the dispute," by which he means--since he is no longer President it seems strange that he doesn't say so--that the PLO should be included. Moreover, among the aims of these talks should be protection of human rights, including "those generally recognized in the U.S. Constitution and under international law." This is an admirable goal. Presumably, since he advocates a comprehensive approach, Carter intends it to apply not just to the Palestinians, but also to the citizens of Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries where the guarantees of the Constitution are regarded with some suspicion, if not contempt. Unhappily, he fails to suggest how this might be accomplished.

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