Why Carter is Right on the State of Palestine

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, former President Jimmy Carter called on President Obama to grant formal U.S. diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine before the end of his term. He argued that this would help other countries follow suit, paving the way for full Palestinian membership in the U.N. and the adoption of a Security Council resolution to resolve the conflict.

In his well-known speech at Cairo University in 2009, President Obama had the following to say about the issue:

The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires.

If Obama is genuinely interested in achieving a peaceful settlement to the conflict, upholding U.S. interests, and leaving behind a legacy consistent with his word, he should immediately recognize the state of Palestine.

The official U.S. position is that Palestinians and Israelis can only achieve peace through direct negotiations with each other. Yet after nearly 70 years, not a single round of negotiations has benefited the Palestinian people. On the contrary, Israel continues to occupy their land and persecute them with near impunity. Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as second-class, both in practice and under racist Israeli laws. In addition, Israel has absolutely no intention of addressing the right of return of Palestinian refugees exiled in 1948.

The massive disparity in power between Israel and Palestinians, coupled with unquestioning U.S. support, allow Israel to perpetuate these injustices with minimal consequences, if any at all. Simply put, Israel is a bully, and bullies do not change their ways unless they are forced to. Surely President Obama realizes this simple equation, but does he have the willpower to take an honest step in holding Israel accountable?

As expected, Carter’s proposal was met with sharp criticism, if not outright derision, from the supporters of Israel. One of the more prominent responses was written by Aaron David Miller, who served as a Middle East negotiator under three presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican. In the CNN op-ed, Miller argues that President Obama should not follow Carter’s advice to recognize Palestinian statehood. He contends that a unilateral move by the U.S. would likely “make matters worse,” while also undermining U.S. credibility. But despite what he claims, matters are already very bleak for Palestinians, and it is obvious that the U.S. is not and never has been an impartial or reliable peace partner.

To lend credibility to his opinion, Miller mentions that he spent a great deal of his life working to “promote, facilitate and consummate negotiations between Arabs and Israelis.” Yet the negotiations that he speaks of, including the infamous Oslo Accords, have proven to be utter failures. With this in mind, how can his advice be taken seriously?

Essentially, the common objection to President Carter is that unilateral moves are unhelpful, if not harmful to the prospects of peace. The other day, in response to U.N. General Assembly resolutions targeting Israel, AIPAC reiterated its claims that direct, bilateral talks between Palestinians and Israelis are the best path to an “enduring peace.” Yet, Israel’s entire identity and history is based on the unilateral oppression and suppression of Palestinians. 

American diplomatic recognition of Palestine will not be a magical solution to resolve the conflict, but it would certainly be a solid step. Israel will require various forms of pressure to adjust its behavior, and the U.S. is likely the only power that can apply such pressure. Otherwise, Israel has absolutely no incentive to make concessions to Palestinians. Why would it return stolen Palestinian land, if there are no consequences to keeping it?

Unfortunately, it is doubtful that President Obama would recognize Palestinian statehood before his term expires. Even Netanyahu expressed his confidence that Obama will not deviate from traditional U.S. policy. Carter believes that the Obama administration’s aim has been to support a negotiated end to the conflict, but this is far from the truth, despite what he said in Cairo. Otherwise, Obama would not have rewarded Israel with a record ten-year, $38 billion deal in military assistance during the last few months of his presidency.

A few days after Carter’s comments, at the Brookings Institution’s annual forum on Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized massive Israeli settlement growth and reiterated U.S. support for the two-state solution. However, the administration has not taken any concrete action toward this, beyond some harsh words. U.S. recognition of Palestine would finally send a strong signal to Israel and to Palestinians that it is serious about resolving the conflict, consistent with its stated policies.


Mohamed Mohamed is the Interim Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. The views expressed are his own.