Eminentoes

Jimmy Carter’s “Jewish Problem”

My afternoon with Carter and Ken Stein.

By 12.12.06

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Nobody was more surprised than I was by the news that Professor Ken Stein resigned his position at the Carter Center because he could no longer abide the reflexive Israel-bashing and fact-twisting engaged in for decades by former President Jimmy Carter, who has just written a book likening Israel to the former apartheid regime in South Africa. Back in March 1990, I had the moderately unpleasant duty of interviewing Carter together with several other journalists; the former president was accompanied by at least one Secret Service agent and by Stein, who worked at the center. Stein seemed to function as Carter's political handler/bodyguard on Middle East issues -- there to assist him in a worst-case scenario to spin his way out of any trouble he got himself into, and to help him fend off questions from pesky journalists who questioned Carter's analysis of the Middle East -- not that there are very many of them interested in doing so.

At the time, I had been assistant editor of Near East Report, the flagship publication of AIPAC (the "Jewish Lobby") for less than nine months. Carter was under fire from American Jewish groups for comments made during a recent trip to the Middle East, during which he severely criticized Israel but largely avoided criticizing Syrian President Hafez Assad -- a brutal dictator and supporter of most of the region's terrorist groups. Carter had apparently hoped to meet with senior American Jewish leaders, including my boss: Tom Dine, then AIPAC's executive director and a Democrat who had previously worked on the staff of liberal senators including Ted Kennedy and Frank Church. But the Jewish leaders quite understandably had no interest in being used as political props in Carter's PR campaign to rehabilitate his image. So, I, a relatively junior member of AIPAC's staff, got to go and meet the man I helped vote out of office in a 44-state landslide a decade earlier.

Two other journalists joined me in interviewing Carter that afternoon: an Israeli whose name I cannot remember, and Wolf Blitzer, then at the end of a long, distinguished career as a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. (Before joining the Post, he too had worked at Near East Report, in the 1970s. ) A few months after the Carter interview, Wolf joined CNN and went on to become what Robert Novak has referred to as a "millionaire superjournalist." Over the course of the next hour, Wolf and I between us asked about 95 percent of the questions directed at Carter.

It quickly became very apparent what kind of interview this was going to be: Wolf would ask the relatively soft questions. ( I'm sure Wolf's gentle approach to Carter helped him land his 1994 "scoop" -- yet another great Jimmy Carter achievement -- the nuclear agreement with North Korea.) My job, on the other hand, was to be the proverbial skunk at the garden party -- asking the former president the tough questions -- like why 99 percent of his criticisms were directed at Israel, a pro-Western democracy, when the Arabs were dictatorships, generally sided with the Soviets during the Cold War, and had consistently been the aggressors. I also wanted to ask Carter why he had virtually nothing negative to say about the brutal killings of Palestinians by other Palestinians.

As the afternoon wore on, Carter and Stein seemed to become increasingly agitated with my questions. For example, I pressed Carter over his suggestion that Israel could afford to consider taking a more conciliatory negotiating position because its Arab neighbors were prepared to negotiate a peace settlement with it. When I asked Carter about warlike statements by Assad, he seemed to back off, saying he could not judge the Syrian leader's "sincerity" about making peace with Israel.

At times, the former president seemed badly ill-prepared -- both in his meetings with Assad and in his interview with us. When I asked him whether the "peace" settlement contemplated by Assad would entail full normalization of relations between Israel and Syria or a more limited military disengagement on the Golan Heights, Carter said the subject had not come up. Carter claimed that Assad was moving away from supporting terror, but could not provide any examples. Carter was unaware that a State Department report one month earlier had refused to certify that Syria was taking steps to stop drug-related activity such as money-laundering. Although he did not know of the State Department's finding on Syria, he praised the first Bush Administration's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, who were distancing Washington from Jerusalem, were far preferable to President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz, who cultivated warm ties with the Jewish State.

Outside of a college campus or the State Department, I don't think I have met an adult American more viscerally, instinctively hostile to Israel than Jimmy Carter. Even when he spoke of his support for freer emigration for Soviet Jews, Carter needled Israel for settling them in "occupied territory" -- making it clear that he wasn't just talking about the West Bank and Gaza, where Arabs are in the majority, but also the eastern part of Jerusalem -- where Jews compose a majority. When I asked Carter whether he had criticized the growing problem of Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence, he became agitated. He noted defensively that human rights groups such as the Carter Center and Amnesty International have focused their attention almost exclusively on government actions that violate human rights (as opposed to actions by individuals or terrorist organizations). "You can read all my statements," Carter told me, his face reddening. "If you want to quote me saying it's an abominable situation for Palestinians to kill Palestinians...Yes, it's an abominable act," he added almost grudgingly.

Shortly afterward, the interview ended. I sensed that Carter and Stein were very unhappy with the fact that I had been grilling Carter; Stein, in particular, seemed somewhat upset. As for Wolf Blitzer, he stiffly told me "Good luck" and left. I later learned that Stein had complained to my bosses over the tone and substance of my questions. For the past 16 years, I cannot read or hear the name "Jimmy Carter" without also thinking of Ken Stein -- who came across that afternoon as a complete Carter sycophant, someone generally comfortable with the former president's anti-Israel bias and hard-left views of American foreign policy. Maybe Mr. Stein's worldview has evolved over the years. Or maybe he has just become more pragmatic because he understands that Carter is losing his tenuous grip on reality and is in the process of going completely off the deep end.

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About the Author

Joel Himelfarb is the assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.