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A Key Critic's Problem with Jimmy Carter's Book

Since the publication of former President Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, the Carter Center has seen a wave of resignations. More than a dozen people have left in protest, saying the book puts too much blame on Israel.

Emory University history professor Kenneth W. Stein, a former adviser to Carter, says he resigned his fellowship at the Center in Atlanta because he considers the book to be unbalanced. Stein has published a rebuttal to Carter's book in the current issue of the The Middle East Quarterly.

"He does what no non-fiction author should ever do," Stein writes. "He allows ideology or opinion to get in the way of facts."

Carter defends the accuracy of his book, save for one passage he now calls "terribly worded," that seemed to justify terrorism by Palestinians on Israeli citizens.

Stein spoke with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep:

Q: You wrote an earlier book with Carter about the Middle East?

A: We wrote the book The Blood of Abraham in 1984. We ping-ponged chapters back and forth. We had frank discussions, even disagreements. At one time, when I insisted that what he was writing was not something that was appropriate, he looked at me, smiling, and said, "Ken, only one of us was president of the United States."

Q: Stein says Carter's new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid is slanted against Israel. He resigned his fellowship at the Carter Center over the book.

A: The difficulty comes between me, the historian, and Jimmy Carter, the mediator. He tends to want to be more agile in the use of the facts. I'm a little bit more rigid and historically consistent. And my disagreement with him comes from that.

Q: Carter met with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1990. He wrote about that meeting in his latest book. You said that he presented Assad a little more sympathetically, and the Israelis less sympathetically, than was actually the case. What are the signs of that in President Carter's book?

A: President Carter, in his book, he says, "I recollect the meeting," and he said that Assad was willing to withdraw further from the line than would the Israelis.

Q: This is all about the Golan Heights, a disputed piece of territory between the two countries.

A: That's correct. Now there are two pieces of evidence that suggest what Carter is saying is not accurate. First are my own notes, at that meeting. And more importantly, I think, if you don't want to believe my notes, is the press conference that Jimmy Carter attended immediately following, in which he articulated the following, he said, "Now this is my personal opinion, I think the Syrians would be willing make a compromise and move further back from the Heights." What he now says in 2006 is, he makes it into fact, and you can't do that.

Q: Carter says you did not attend all of the meetings he was in on that trip. Is it possible that Carter had meetings during that trip [to Syria] that you just weren't there for?

A: It's possible he had meetings, he had communications with all sorts of people that I never saw. That's all possible. But in my conversations with President Carter, both before and after that trip, never once did he intimate to me that Hafez al-Assad was going to be more flexible about sovereignty in the Golan Heights than were the Israelis. It would also be inconsistent with Hafez al-Assad's status of wanting to be the leader of the Arab world and not wanting to compromise with the Golan Heights.

Q: I want to back away from some of these details, and I don't mean to suggest at all that the details are unimportant, but if we back away from some of the details, and look at the central premise of Carter's book, which is that you have a man of long experience on Mideast issues, who has met a lot of the players involved, who started out very sympathetic to Israel years ago, but has come around to the view that the Israelis are guilty of something he calls "apartheid" in their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank. Would you argue with the broad strokes of that?

A: I would argue with the terminology. I think, in his interview with you on Thursday, he used the word "total domination," he used the term "harsh oppression." Make no mistake about it, the manner in which Palestinians have lived in the territories since 1967 has been bad. Part of that has been clearly imposed and applied by the Israelis. Part of it has been clearly imposed by leadership that has not been able to demonstrate it's more interested in the Palestinians than it's interested in itself. In other words, what Carter has done in his book, Carter has put the burden of responsibility on one side.

Q: You arguing that this is a complicated situation in which Palestinians bear some responsibility.

A: And so do Israelis.

Q: A layman might look, though, at some of the facts, and let's emphasize some of the facts, here, and say, "well we've got this area, it's under Israeli occupation (that's the United Nations definition), you've got barriers, you've got segregated communities, you've got segregated highways connecting those communities to one another, why not call it 'apartheid'?" A layman might ask that question.

A: A layman would have every right to ask that question. But that doesn't mean, if it looks like a duck and it smells like a duck and quacks like a duck, that it's a duck.

Q: And the difference to you is?

A: The difference to me is, that part of this problem is that the Palestinians have chosen to use terrorism. And every time they've chosen to use terrorism, the Israelis have come into the territories, or they have closed the territories, and they have made it more difficult for the Palestinians to have regular life. There's not doubt that the Israelis have confiscated Palestinian lands, confiscated Palestinian lands illegally. But if you tell the Arab-Israeli conflict, and you tell the history of it, you cannot unpack it in such a way that one side is just seen to be responsible. History always tells us that truth is some place in between.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.