Book Review | President Carter
After Jimmy Carter became president, he moved beyond long and firm support for Israel rooted in his belief in biblical Christianity to sympathy and support for the Palestinians and other Arabs, according to his top adviser in those years. As Stuart Eizenstat explains in his new opus, President Carter, Carter knew little about the Palestinians, but he sympathized with their plight in the Israeli occupation. Writes Eizenstat: He “admitted to me later that his feelings toward the Palestinians developed only after he took office.”
Much of Eizenstat’s 150 pages detailing the events surrounding the historic 1978 Camp David Accords deal with the tugs and tussles that took place in the White House involving the millennia-long dispute over the Middle East. As Carter’s policy director in the campaign and as White House domestic adviser, Eizenstat’s note taking filled 150 legal pads. And while this review is primarily about Eizenstat’s detailed narrative of Carter and the Middle East situation, his book also pours the same detail (and not infrequent criticism) into how the president handled energy, “the Moral Equivalent of War,” the Panama Canal treaties and and the mind-numbing but sharply debated stagnation that plagued Carter during his entire administration. I have no doubt Eizenstat’s will endure as the definitive book on the Carter’s presidency.
Carter was driven to seek the best possible solution to any problem regardless of the political complications, Eizenstat writes. He does not go into depth with the why and how of Carter’s evolved motivations—as contrasted with his policies—concerning the Holy Land, but one can guess based on the information Eizenstat provides. In sum, Carter had taught Bible classes since he was 18—continuing through his White House years—and, as Eizenstat puts it, “he believed that God had ordained a homeland of the Jews there.” But based on his Christian faith, Carter “also sympathized with then plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation of the conquered territories.”
Soon after Carter took office, however, the inevitable brush-ups that occur in human relationships interfered. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, tough “son of Jerusalem,” laconic and “thoroughly secular” came to the White House as Carter’s first foreign visitor. In short, “the two appeared to grate on each other’s nerves.” Eizenstat said Rabin, contrary to Carter’s opinion, thought a comprehensive settlement was impossible and Eizenstat characterized their meeting as a “disastrous visit.” Soon Menachem Begin became prime minister—and eventually one of the three heroes of the Camp David Accords. Begin was eloquent, determined and so staked in biblical history that he referred to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria. When Begin spoke in meetings with Carter, he would first give a half-hour lecture on the long and often painful Jewish history, before eventually moving to the issues of the day.
Eizenstat writes that Begin “sorely tested” Carter’s patience, and often Carter listened “barely concealing his frustration.” Carter’s gifts of autographed photos to Menachem Begin’s grandchildren were a poignant gesture at a time of impasse that may have helped save the Camp David Accord. In fact, a disagreement on day 13 at Camp David over the length of the freeze on new settlements on the West Bank led Eizenstat to conclude that it soured the relationship with Begin for the rest of Carter’s term, and “colored his relationship with Israel for the rest of his life.”
Early in the administration, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat came to visit, “and the contrast (with Begin) could not have been more pronounced.” Carter was taken with Sadat, described as “warm, ebullient, loquacious and jocular” and strikingly elegant. Later, at Camp David, they took morning walks together.
Many people know the rough outlines of the Carter presidency, especially the parts dealing with Israel. Eizenstat fills in abundant detail—not all of it flattering to Carter. During the narrative on Camp David and Israel, Eizenstat perhaps reveals his own frustrations (intentionally or not): Carter, he writes, spoke “almost plaintively,” “sarcastically thanked,” “icily told,” was “barreling ahead,” “grumbled,” “blurted,” “flatly told” in a “harsh tone” and spoke “caustically.”
The studious-appearing Eizenstat, surprisingly of national stature as a high school basketball player, was the son of a Jewish small businessman in Atlanta, wholesaling “shamettes” (low-cost shoes). His grandfather and great-grandfather are buried in Israel. After the Camp David Accords, he and his wife, Fran, invited the Carters to a family Passover seder. And it’s because of Eizenstat that a menorah is displayed in Lafayette Park during the holidays.
I was covering Carter for UPI during this period and I certainly didn’t know—nor did other reporters—about the fusses and feuding taking place inside the White House. As Eizenstat tells it, it seemed to be Vice President Walter Mondale and Eizenstat himself arguing the case for Israel vs. Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski on the other. Mondale had a close relationship with the Jewish community at the time.
The key policy difference that emerged was over Carter’s determination early in his administration for a comprehensive agreement co-sponsored by the Soviet Union, based on a study from the Brookings Institution. (Brzezinski was one of the authors of the Brookings study.) Carter’s proposal would swap conquered land (i.e., the West Bank, Gaza and Golan) for a secure peace and link a Palestinian homeland to Jordan rather than an independent state. Eizenstat says the proposal “could not have been more different” from Carter’s 1976 campaign emphasis on Israel’s preferred position and security needs and opposition to Arab arms sales. Begin, on the other hand, was offering only some withdrawal on some fronts. What emerged in the Camp David Accords, and six months later, was not a comprehensive agreement but an incremental one—a treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Years later, Eizenstat writes, Carter acknowledged that he “had lost a tremendous amount of Jewish support” because he talked about a Palestinian homeland in “a politically foolish way.” As for the American Jewish leadership, Carter also acknowledged, “I would get individual Jewish leaders to say, ‘We understand, Mr. President, you have to deal with Palestinian rights.’ But when you get those people in a collective group, they are very reluctant to say the same thing where others can hear.”
Unique in diplomacy was “the special triangular relationship” among Israel, the American Jewish leadership and Congress in effectively applying pressure on the presidency to modify U.S. policy to Israel’s benefit, Eizenstat writes. For all this, and considering Eizenstat’s own mixed feelings, there is no doubt about his opinion in sum. Carter’s great strength, he writes, “was his willingness to tackle what seemed to be insurmountable challenges by dint of eighteen-hour days and self-discipline.”
And this: “Jimmy Carter’s achievement at Camp David will be indelibly linked with the history of the Middle East and the security of Israel. How many other presidents who have served four or even eight years have come close to matching this singular triumph?”