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December 28, 2014 / 6 Tevet, 5775
 
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Why Not the Worst? Recalling the Carter Presidency

Next week marks the 32nd anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, an event that set into motion a process that would result, nearly a year and a half later, in the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

It’s been a cold peace, to be sure, but contrary to widespread fears at the time, it’s held up for a full three decades now. In its first 25 years of existence Israel fought four wars (five, if one counts the 1968-70 War of Attrition) with Egypt – but none since Sadat first began signaling his desire for a negotiated settlement.

It’s inevitable that the role of former president Jimmy Carter comes up whenever the discussion turns to Sadat’s visit and the Camp David talks that eventually ensued.

Carter spent much time and political capital as an intermediary between Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and when an accord was finally signed in Washington in March 1979, a beaming Carter took center stage with Sadat and Begin.

But the fact remains that Carter’s involvement was nothing so much as an accident of history. The president of the United States – any president of the United States – is the only individual in the world with the power and prestige to broker a peace deal between two countries within the sphere of American influence and assistance.

And Carter had a much different (and potentially incendiary) approach in mind to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was Sadat’s distress at Carter’s emerging Middle East policy that pushed the Egyptian president to make his journey to Jerusalem – a move that forced an initially recalcitrant Carter to scrap his plan to include the Soviet Union as a full partner in a new round of Mideast negotiations.

It was with no apparent sense of irony that Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign autobiography was titled Why Not The Best? That very question would come up with increasing frequency in the years after Carter’s election, only then it was being asked not as a rhetorical device to sell books but by Americans who refused to believe that this ineffectual, uninspiring milquetoast was the best a great nation could do.

For those with eyes to see, there were hints during the 1976 campaign of the trouble to come.

* Early that year, Harper’s magazine published “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies,’ a detailed expos? of Carter’s record in Georgia by a then little-known journalist named Steven Brill.

The rest of the media yawned.

* Reg Murphy, the respected veteran newspaperman who as editor of the Atlanta Constitution had kept a close eye on Carter’s rise in state politics, declared that “Jimmy Carter is one of the three or four phoniest men I ever met.’

Nobody listened.

* Several prominent evangelical leaders questioned the authenticity of Carter’s vaunted “born again’ religious experience in light of his positions on key social issues and his vocal admiration for the work of liberal theologians – somewhat analogous to a Jew proclaiming himself Orthodox while quoting almost exclusively from the teachings of Reform rabbis.

The glaring inconsistency was all but ignored.

* A young speechwriter named Bob Shrum, who would later emerge as a leading Democratic strategist, quit the Carter campaign after just a few weeks, disgusted with what he described as Carter’s penchant for fudging the truth. He also related that Carter, convinced the Jewish vote in the Democratic primaries would go to Senator Henry (“Scoop’) Jackson, had instructed his staff not to issue any more statements on the Middle East. According to Shrum, Carter’s words were, “Jackson has all the Jews anyway. We get the Christians.’

Did anybody care about all this? Certainly not Jews, who come November would vote for Carter by a margin of 71-27 percent.

And so it came to pass that in that bicentennial summer of 1976, Americans were giving a previously unknown state senator and governor from Georgia a 30-point lead over the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in all the public opinion polls.

Traumatized by Vietnam, Watergate, and what they perceived to be the relentless unraveling of the nation’s social fabric, voters responded to Carter’s basic campaign pitch, a treacly line of empty drivel almost embarrassing to recall today, but apparently beguiling to otherwise rational people 33 years ago:

“If we could just have,” Carter bleated in speech after speech, his Southern-fried cadences rising into the ether, “a government as good and as honest and as decent and as competent and as compassionate and as filled with love as are the American people, that would be a wonderful thing.”

He would invariably end each therapy session/campaign appearance by promising to never, ever lie to the American people.

But the act eventually started to wear thin, and Carter’s poll numbers in September and October fell like so many autumn leaves. Evidently, a significant number of Americans were having second thoughts about replacing a president who had done a relatively decent job with a candidate who offered little more than a toothpaste smile and a pocketful of promises.

Carter’s margin of victory on election day was barely more than two percentage points, and pollsters speculated that the results probably would have been reversed had the election taken place just two days later, so strong was Ford’s momentum the last week of the campaign.

Despite the populist touches he experimented with early on in his presidency – addressing the nation while outfitted in a cardigan sweater, doing a radio call-in show with CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – Carter failed to make a strong impression with the public. His popularity rating remained high for his first 100-plus days in office (the usual “honeymoon” period for new presidents), but by summer’s end he was already being viewed as a disappointment.

And no one was more disappointed than those Jews who had voted for Carter thinking he’d be better for Israel than Gerald Ford.

From the vantage point of 2009, it is difficult to convey just how shocking it was three decades ago to hear an American president call for a “homeland’ for the Palestinians.

That is precisely what Carter did in a series of statements between March and May of 1977, the first of which he delivered shortly after a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The reaction of Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders to Carter’s pro-Palestinian declaration was one of outrage and betrayal. Carter did some backpedaling in the weeks that followed, going so far as to declare that he would “rather commit political suicide than hurt Israel,” but permanent damage had been done to his relationship with the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, a political earthquake shook Israel in May as the Labor party, which had ruled the country for its first 29 years of existence, was voted out of power and replaced by the consummate outsider in Israeli politics, the former leader of the pre-state underground Irgun, Menachem Begin.

Relations between Carter and Begin were tense from the moment the two first met at the White House in July. But it was two months later, during another high-level visit to Washington by Israeli officials, that the animosity of the Carter administration really began to make itself felt.

Moshe Dayan, whom Begin had appointed foreign minister as a gesture of reconciliation to his Labor party foes, captured the atmosphere of those talks (which he called “ugly”) in Breakthrough, his surprisingly frank account of that period:

“You are more stubborn than the Arabs, and you put obstacles on the path to peace,” Carter berated Dayan, setting the tone for what became a full-scale anti-Israel barrage by both the president and his vice president, Walter Mondale.

“Our talk lasted more than an hour and was most unpleasant,” wrote Dayan. “President Carter … and even more so Mondale, launched charge after charge against Israel.

Mondale, wrote Dayan, could not control himself: “Whenever the president showed signs of calming down and holding an even-tempered dialogue, Mondale jumped in with fresh complaints which disrupted the talk.”

By the end of his first year in office, Carter was piling up mistakes and blunders at a startling pace. Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan echoed the view of many, abroad and at home, when he described the Carter administration as “the weakest American administration in my lifetime.”

Standing out among Carter’s flubs was his decision to issue a joint statement on the Middle East with the Soviet Union. This totally unexpected document, released on October 1, 1977, marked the first time the U.S. officially employed the phrase “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

The communiqu? also recommended the conveying of an Arab-Israel peace conference in Geneva, with the participation of Palestinian representatives and with the Americans and the Soviets acting as joint guarantors of any agreement that might be reached.

Reaction in the U.S. was immediate – and furious. “[A] political firestorm erupted,” wrote Middle East expert Steven Spiegel. “After American officials had worked successfully for years to reduce Russian influence over the Mideast peace process and in the area as whole, critics could not understand why the administration had suddenly invited Moscow to return.”

If there was anyone more incensed at Carter than the Israelis and most American lawmakers, it was Anwar Sadat. It had been just five years since the Egyptian leader stunned the world by unceremoniously expelling thousands of Soviet military advisers and their families from Egypt, his most concrete signal to date of his desire to align his country with the West.

Sadat, who neither liked nor trusted the Russians, had taken a considerable risk by breaking with them so dramatically, and here were the Americans blithely escorting them back into the picture.

And so Sadat decided to kill the U.S.-Soviet initiative in the womb. Several months earlier, Menachem Begin, newly installed as Israeli prime minister, had asked Morocco’s King Hassan to convey information to Sadat of a Libyan-backed plot to overthrow the Egyptian government.

The grateful Egyptian president, who had been mulling some sort of dramatic gesture to signal his readiness to talk peace, was now convinced he could do business with Begin. Carter’s invitation to the Soviets was the impetus he needed.

The announcement that Sadat would go to Jerusalem and speak to the Knesset electrified the world – and caught the Americans completely off guard.

Eventually, of course, the U.S. would broker what became known as the Camp David accords and oversee the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. But Carter had been blindsided by Sadat, with the compliance of Begin, in response to the American president’s inexplicable decision to involve the Soviets in the peace process.

And Carter was far from a dispassionate third party; his disdain for Begin and near hero-worship of Sadat was clearly reflected in his demeanor. He continually browbeat Begin throughout the Camp David summit and the eight months of diplomacy that followed, while White House aides fed stories to the press of the Israeli prime minister’s alleged intransigence.

Carter, whose approval ratings at the end of his presidency were lower even than those of Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate, was humiliated in the election of 1980, managing to win just six states against his Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan. Jewish support for Carter had fallen from 71 percent in 1976 to 45 percent four years later.

Americans had just plain had enough of the runaway inflation and interest rates that characterized the Carter era, and of the country’s loss of respect abroad, epitomized by the ordeal of the American hostages in Iran.

Rather than retire into well-deserve obscurity, Carter launched a new career as Public Nuisance. The liver-lipped scold interjected himself into foreign policy debates, traveling from one international hot spot to another, usually without the blessings of the State Department and against the wishes of whoever the president was at the time.

Closest to his heart was the cause of the Palestinians. In The Unfinished Presidency, his book about Carter’s activities after leaving the White House, historian Douglas Brinkley devoted considerable space to the ex-president’s obsessive efforts to help Yasir Arafat polish his image.

Carter, according to Brinkley, regularly advised Arafat on how to manipulate the media and shape his message for Western journalists.

After meeting Arafat for the first time, in 1990, Carter returned to Georgia and, wrote Brinkley, “drafted on his home computer the strategy and wording for a generic speech Arafat was to deliver soon for Western ears.”

Carter unabashedly supported the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that began in 1987. “He view[ed] the unarmed young Palestinians who stood up against thousands of Israel soldiers as ‘instant heroes,’ ” wrote Brinkley. “Buoyed by the intifada, Carter passed on to the Palestinians, through Arafat, his congratulations.”

If anything, Carter’s animosity toward Israel has only increased with time. His numerous anti-Israel op-ed articles, speeches and books, and the glaring fact that his Carter Center is heavily funded by Arab nations and interests, have made it impossible for even many former supporters to defend him.

All one needs to know about Carter’s views and attitudes was conveyed years ago by two generally reliable sources.

In his 1984 bestseller Mayor, former New York City mayor Ed Koch recounted a conversation he had shortly before the 1980 election with Cyrus Vance, who had resigned earlier that year as Carter’s secretary of state. Koch told Vance that many Jews would not be voting for Carter because they feared “that if he is reelected he will sell them out.”

“Vance,” recorded Koch, “nodded and said, ‘He will.’ “

In Dangerous Liaison, their 1991 book on the covert side of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn reported that at a meeting in March 1980 with some of his senior political advisers, an irritated Carter, discussing his fading reelection prospects and his unpopularity in the Jewish community, snapped, “If I get back in, I’m going to [expletive deleted] the Jews.”

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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