Jimmy Carter and the Arab Lobby
By Jacob Laksin
December 18, 2006
Nothing demonstrates more clearly the defects of Jimmy Carter’s latest brief against Israel, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, than the ex-president’s reluctance to defend the book on its merits. Rather than take up that unenviable task, Carter has sought to shift the focus away from the criticism -- especially as it concerns the book’s serial distortions and outright falsehoods -- and onto the critics.
In particular, Carter claims that critics are compromised by their support for Israel, their ties to pro-Israel lobbying organizations, and -- a more pernicious charge -- their Jewish background. In interviews about his book, Carter has seldom missed an opportunity to invoke what he calls the “powerful influence of AIPAC,” with the subtext that it is the lobbying group, and not his slanderous charges about Israel, that is mainly responsible for mobilizing popular outrage over Palestine. In a related line of defense, Carter has singled out “representatives of Jewish organizations” in the media as the prime culprits behind his poor reviews and “university campuses with high Jewish enrollment” as the main obstacle to forthright debate about his book on American universities. (Ironically, when challenged last week by Alan Dershowitz to a debate about his book at Brandeis University, which has a large Jewish student body, Carter rejected the invitation.)
Bluster aside, Carter’s chief complaint seems to be that anyone who identifies with Israel, whether in the form of individual support or in a more organized capacity, is incapable of grappling honestly with the issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Carter is poorly placed to make this claim. If such connections alone are sufficient to discredit his critics, then by his own logic Carter is undeserving of a hearing. After all, the Carter Center, the combination research and activist project he founded at Emory University in 1982, has for years prospered from the largesse of assorted Arab financiers.
Especially lucrative have been Carter’s ties to Saudi Arabia. Before his death in 2005, King Fahd was a longtime contributor to the Carter Center and on more than one occasion contributed million-dollar donations. In 1993 alone, the king presented Carter with a gift of $7.6 million. And the king was not the only Saudi royal to commit funds to Carter’s cause. As of 2005, the king’s high-living nephew, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, has donated at least $5 million to the Carter Center.
Meanwhile the Saudi Fund for Development, the kingdom’s leading loan organization, turns up repeatedly on the center’s list of supporters. Carter has also found moneyed allies in the Bin Laden family, and in 2000 he secured a promise from ten of Osama bin Laden's brothers for a $1 million contribution to his center. To be sure, there is no evidence that the Bin Ladens maintain any contact with their terrorist relation. But applying Carter’s own standard, his extensive contacts with the Saudi elite must make his views on the Middle East suspect.
High praise for Carter’s work -- and not inconsiderable financial support -- also comes from the United Arab Emirates. In 2001, Carter even traveled to the country to accept the Zayed International Prize for the Environment, named for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the late UAE potentate and former president-for-life. Having claimed his $500,000 purse, Carter enthused that the “award has special significance for me because it is named for my personal friend, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan.” Carter also hailed the UAE as an “almost completely open and free society” -- a surreal depiction of a rigidly authoritarian country where the government handpicks a select group of citizens to vote and strictly controls the editorial content of the newspapers and where Islamic Shari’a courts judge “sodomy” punishable by death. (To appreciate the depth of Carter’s cynicism, one need only compare his gushing encomia to the emirates with his likening of Israel, the most modern and democratic country in the entire Middle East, with the racist “apartheid” of South Africa.)
On top of these official honors, Carter was offered a forum at the Abu Dhabi-based Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow Up, the country’s official “think-tank.” For his part, Carter declared his intention to forge a “partnership” with the center; in a 2002 letter, Carter praised its efforts to “promote peace, health, and human rights around the world.” Inconveniently for Carter, the center has since become famous for a different reason: It has repeatedly played host to anti-Semitic speakers who have denied the Holocaust, supported terrorism, and alleged an international conspiracy of Jews and Zionists to dominate the world. (Harvard University, in contrast to Carter’s enthusiasm for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, rejected a $2.5 million from the ruler in 2004 due to his ties to the Zayed Center.)
Nor does this exhaust the list of Carter’s backers in the Arab world. Still other supporters include Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who sits atop Oman’s absolute monarchy. An occasional host to Carter, the sultan has also made generous contributions to his center. Prior to inviting Carter for a “personal visit” in 1998, the sultan pledged $1 million to the Carter Center, promising additional support in the future. Similarly, Morocco’s Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah, the second in line to the kingdom’s throne, has in the past partnered with Carter on the center’s initiatives.
On its face, there is nothing objectionable about these contacts. What has raised critics’ eyebrows is Carter’s immense chutzpah: In securing the financial support of assorted Arab leaders, Carter has gradually come to parrot their anti-Israel political agenda -- even as he styles himself as a dispassionate mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This was nowhere more evident than in Carter’s credulous support for the late Yasir Arafat. Although Carter had championed Araft as a committed peacemaker since his presidency, in the face of ample evidence to the contrary, his apologies for the terrorist chieftain became particularly shameless in the 1990s. When Arafat and his PLO backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, thereby loosing the support and -- more important for the corrupt Arafat -- the funding of neighboring Sunni Arab powers, Carter embarked on a Middle East publicity tour to revive Arafat’s diminishing fortunes. As recorded by Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley, “together [Carter and Arafat] strategized on how to recover the PLO’s standing in the United States.” In desperation, Carter turned up in Saudi Arabia on what Brinkley called “essentially a fund-raising mission for the PLO,” pleading with King Fahd to restore Arafat to the Saudi dole.
Now that Arafat’s Fatah has been replaced with Hamas, Carter has again proven himself a reliable ally of Palestinian extremism. Scarcely had the terrorist group ascended to power last January than Carter launched a media blitz urging the United States to circumvent its own laws against financing terrorism in order to fund Hamas. As the New York Times put with exquisite finesse, Carter called on Western nations to "redirect their relief aid to United Nations organizations and nongovernmental organizations to skirt legal restrictions” -- that is, to launder money to a terrorist group. When American policymakers declined to heed his advice, and Israel proved unwilling to bankroll the enemy seeking its destruction, Carter promptly denounced the both countries for their “common commitment to eviscerate the government of elected Hamas.”
With its relentless disparagement of Israel and its reckless abuse of the historical record, Carter’s latest book may fairly be seen as the logical culmination of his many years of anti-Israel incitement. There was of course no shortage of clues about Carter’s sympathies in his earlier books. In his 2004 memoir Sharing Good Times, for instance, Carter recalled the trips he has taken over the years to Arab dictatorships in Syria and Saudi Arabia and noted with evident satisfaction that he was “always greeted with smiles and friendship.”
Readers may be forgiven for finding nothing shocking in this admission. Carter may still harbor illusions of grandeur, seeing himself as an instrument of peace in the Middle East. But an altogether different element explains his enduring popularity in Arab capitals: Not for all the millions they have sunk into the Carter Center over the years could Arab elites have hoped to purchase such a prominent and willing propaganda tool.
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