President Jimmy Carter being interviewed by Sami Moubayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, December 2008.

President Jimmy Carter speaks to Sami Moubayed

I asked young Syrians, all born after the Carter years, what the first thing was that came to mind when they heard the name Jimmy Carter. Answers varied but had the same theme: “Camp David, ally of Anwar Sadat, and friend of the Palestinians.” This was mainly because of his latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Jimmy Carter’s image, and the legacy he left behind, both during his White House years and since becoming a private citizen in 1981, is one that brings out confidence in people. He is a man who has vowed to bring justice to the Holy Land and remains committed to peace in the Middle East.

When speaking to Forward Magazine, Cater—at 84—was charming, humble, full of life, and still optimistic that peace in the Middle East was within reach. President Carter’s interview with Forward Magazine was the first ever for a US President with a Syrian publication.

Barack Obama will become president of the United States on January 20, 2009. Do you think that the Obama presidency can provide foundations for a new relationship between Syria and the US, where Syria becomes America’s ally in the Middle East? 

I think there is a new opportunity with the new administration in Washington, to resolve existing problems between Syria and America. Not just diplomatic relations, but we hope to see the American school re-open, along with the American Language Center, and for a new American embassy to be built. We seek a complete openness in exchange of ideas, and cooperation in a new era, to also achieve results between Fateh and Hamas, between the Palestinians and Israel, and between Syria and Israel, which would lead to restoration of the Golan Heights.

Back in 1977, Menahem Begin and Anwar Sadat began toying with peace talks through Romania, Morocco, and Iran—in an Israeli attempt to avoid talking to the PLO. The US could not but support, then spearhead, such a peace initiative although it was not involved in the early talks. Today, however, we don’t have a Menahem Begin in Tel Aviv, nor do we have a Jimmy Carter at the White House. The most recent Syrian-Israeli talks, via Turkish mediation, were called off as a result of the situation in Gaza. Can these talks materialize into a breakthrough within the next year, without the Americans? 

I don’t agree to your premise that the Egyptian-Israeli talks, which we initiated, were started by all these countries. To get to get to the front question, however, I don’t think there is any doubt that the indirect talks that were sponsored and mediated by Turkey were a good beginning. Syria was pleased with the results of the talks. I understand that the two delegations had been in separate hotels, and the Turks had going back and forth to find results, not only to resolve differences, but to present questions, from Syria to Israel and vice-versa. All of those questions have not yet been answered but I understand that the answers have been prepared. I don’t have any doubts that the United States is prepared to welcome this initiation. When the direct talks begin, at a later stage, and lead to details on the Golan Heights, the United States will be welcome (them).

During your April 2008 visit to Syria you said that 85% of pending issues between Syria and Israel had been solved. Can the Obama administration deal with the remaining 15% and give them high priority, for us to see a peace deal materialize in one year’s time? 

Well there is no way that the Obama administration or any other outside force, could put enough pressure on either Syria or Israel to yield on their basic principles. My hope and my belief are that there are enough compatibilities between the two parties to reach a final agreement. The issues, however, are still there. I discussed them in detail with President Hafez al-Assad, as early as 1983 when I first came to Syria. It seemed to me that the proposals he put forward would be acceptable to the Israelis. At that time I went back to Israel and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was not prepared to enter into negotiations with Syria.

Subsequently in the 1990s another round of discussions were concluded, and enough agreement was reached. In the past, at least three prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and now Ehud Olmert, have said that they want to conclude talks with Syria. From the information I have there has never been any doubt that the basic demand of Syria has been total withdrawal from Syrian territory, along with an exact definition of the western boundary of Syrian territory; the Sea of Galilee and the Lake of Tiberius. There are other problems with which I am fairly familiar, where Israel has been requesting some commitment from Syria regarding Syria’s relationship with ‘others.’ That might be a difficult issue to resolve.

You met President Hafez al-Assad in Geneva in 1977. In 1983, you were the second US president to visit Syria, after Richard Nixon came here in 1974. Can you give us your impressions of Syria—both then and now? What has changed? What has remained the same?

My personal impressions have always been favorable. I had complete compatibility with Hafez al-Assad. I met with him four times and we always had thorough discussions; he was always outspoken, and well informed, not only about bilateral issues, but regional ones as well, as anyone I have ever known. He studied history and monitored news reports from different capitals. He liked to argue and debate, and presented his views very strongly. He almost memorized passages of my own book, and was also, one of the most gracious hosts I have ever known. He took me to visit interesting places in Syria, like his own hometown, and the Church of Hanania, which we visited this morning. We visited the Old City of Damascus in 1983 and some of the shopkeepers still remember me.

The personal experience for my wife and I has always been perfect. In one of my earlier visits he brought in his own family to meet with me, including his daughter, older son, and younger one (current President Bashar al-Assad) from London. That was an honor for me. He invited me to his home, where his wife prepared supper for us. I have always been pleased to see an indisputable fact, being that Syria went out of its way over a period of generations, to have compatibility between its different sects and religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This is a good example for the rest of the world to copy.

Is there a special story regarding your relationship with Syria that would like to convey, for the first time, via Forward Magazine?

One time, Hafez al-Assad accommodated a particular request of mine. There was a group of Syrian Jewish men in New York who couldn’t find wives. Their custom was to marry women who shared their faith. So I brought that problem to President Assad and he promised me to send around 50 Syrian Jewish women to New York, with match-makers to orchestrate the pairing. A number of the men found wives and the remaining ladies came back to Syria. President Assad had a great sense of humor. He noted very carefully how many women went to America, and how many came back home. He then showed me that not everyone wanted to move to America!

Speaking of unique stories, yesterday during your speech at the American University of Beirut (AUB), you mentioned one about your relationship with Menahem Begin, and his grandchildren, during the peace talks at Camp David. Can you tell us about it?

This is a beautiful story. It was a turning point in my political life. After 12-days of tedious negotiations, we had reached a termination of all my efforts for accommodation between Begin and Sadat. Begin had sworn before God that he would never dismantle the settlements, and there was a major Israeli settlement in the Sinai desert. Sadat had told me that he had only two requirements. One being that Palestinian rights be honored. I wrote “autonomy for the Palestinians.” Sadat said, “Write full autonomy!” Second that all Israeli settlements be dismantled (in the Sinai). I couldn’t make either man change (his positions). So we had failure, and Begin was very angry with me.

On the last day he sent me word with his most trusted associate, Aharon Barak, who would later become Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme best cartier replica Court, saying that he would like to have a copy of a photograph, of me, him, and Sadat, signed for his eight grandchildren. My secretary called Israel, and got the personal names of all of Begin’s grandchildren. Instead of signing, “Best wishes, Jimmy Carter” I wrote, “Love and best wishes, to…” I wrote down all their first names and decided to take it in person to Begin. He had been in his cabin and Sadat had been in his for 10 days. They had not seen each other.  I gave him the photograph and he said, “thank you Mr. President.”

He turned around to walk away, then took out the photograph, and very slowly, began to call out (his grandchildren’s names), one-at-a-time. He began to weep, and so did I. I left, but around one hour later, Barak knocked on my door, and I spent that night with him and Sadat’s top representative, and we negotiated a proposal that we brought back to Begin. It was that the Israeli Knesset would decide on dismantling the settlements and he would not have to be involved in the decision. He agreed and I got him to agree that he would not interfere in the Knesset’s decision. So, we signed an agreement and announced it in Washington DC. The Israeli Knesset voted 85% in favor of withdrawal, although a few people, like Netanyahu and Olmert, did not support it.  Sadat was the most forthcoming of all the Egyptians, while Begin was the least forthcoming of all the Israelis.

 

Mr. President; I am going to mention a few names, and I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear them.

Anwar Sadat: Wise, courageous, independent.

Menahem Begin: Extremely intelligent and wiling to take the chance for having peace with Egypt.

George W. Bush: The end of a very disappointing administration

Barack Obama: Honesty, intelligence, and politically adept.

Forward Magazine, December 2008