In a wide-ranging and at times convivial talk at a sold-out Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Feb. 24, President Jimmy Carter lamented that the United States is not pursuing peace between Israel and its neighbors and said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has decided on a one-state solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
During his 24-minute speech titled “Challenges of a Superpower,” the 88-year-old former president pointed to wars, the death penalty and income inequality as signs that the United States is not living up to its ideals. Then in a 36-minute Q&A session, Carter addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.
“Under [Netanyahu’s] administration, Israel has been madly building settlements in East Jerusalem and all over the West Bank,” the 39th president told the approximately 925 people attending the Commonwealth Club event. “This means that it is becoming decreasingly likely that you could have a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.”
Carter, who as president negotiated the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, urged President Barack Obama to exert pressure on Israel to return to its 1967 borders and to stop building settlements. He said that he is “very discouraged” at the prospects for a two-state solution.
“This is the first time in more than 50 years the United States has not been trying to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors,” said Carter, who in 2006 drew ire from many Jewish leaders for his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” “The only thing that can be done is for the United States to play a major role.”
Carter said that the Israeli elections in January, in which a conservative coalition narrowly held onto power, were a sign that the Israeli public is reacting against Netanyahu’s policies, showing that the prime minister has “gone too far along the road of ending the possibility for a two-state solution.”
The 2002 Nobel Peace Prize recipient called for negotiations with Iran and North Korea to discourage those countries from developing nuclear weapons. He then provided a candid assessment of the nuclear arsenals of Israel and the United States and said that these would deter Iran’s leaders from launching an attack if they acquired nuclear weapons.
“Israel has, I don’t know, 200 [nuclear] weapons of a very advanced nature, and we have 5,000,” he said. “I’m not sure that the Iranians are suicidal enough to have their own country wiped off the map by challenging Israel.”
Carter, who was president during the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis, fielded a question about the movie “Argo,” which tells the story of how six U.S. embassy workers were rescued after hiding out in the Canadian embassy.
“The movie role played by the American hero [a CIA agent] — he was only there for a day and a half,” Carter said. “My judgment is that 90 percent of the credit for that heroic and brilliant movie should have been with the Canadians, and the movie ignores practically any contribution by the Canadians.”
Carter, who spoke Feb. 24 just hours before the Academy Awards ceremony, lightheartedly added, “but aside from that, it’s a vivid, wonderful film, and it’s not completely factual, but I hope it gets the best picture.” It did.
After Carter lost the 1980 presidential race to Ronald Reagan, he founded the Carter Center, a nongovernmental agency. During his talk, Carter discussed the center’s recent work monitoring elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories.
He also outlined the center’s achievements in global public health, receiving applause when he discussed the Carter Center’s success in nearly eradicating Guinea worm disease.
Referring to how his NGO does work in North Korea and Ramallah, Carter explained that he and his wife, who is 85, travel to difficult parts of the world.
“Since Rosalynn and I left the White House in involuntary retirement in 1980,” he said with a laugh, “we have been to
73 countries. We try to go to countries to promote peace, countries the United States is somewhat or totally alienated from.”