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Jimmy Carter’s Current Campaign

The former president talks about his human rights and medical relief efforts


At 82, former President Jimmy Carter still prefers to spend his time trying to cure the world’s ills, pounding nails for Habitat for Humanity and traveling to Asia and Africa, where he’s been working for two decades to eradicate Guinea worm. The campaign has been 95 percent successful and is on track to become the second disease, after smallpox, to be eradicated. Carter has also built medical clinics and assisted African farmers in multiplying their yields of maize, wheat and other grains.

And then there have been Carter’s efforts to promote peace and democracy through mediation, seeking peaceful solutions to civil conflicts and monitoring elections to ensure honest voting. It thus came as a surprise when his latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, was criticized and declared controversial even before it hit the bookstores. In a phone interview from Plains, Georgia, Carter explained what he’d like to be remembered for.

You’ve taken some criticism about the use of the word “apartheid”, yet some people like Desmond Tutu have used that term in the past. Why do you think people might have been more concerned about your use compared to other people’s use?

All of the people that complained about apartheid did it before they read the book. They didn’t realize two things. The book refers to Palestine and not to Israel. I never implied that inside the nation of Israel there was any such thing as apartheid. And secondly, they ignore the third word in the title, and that is not apartheid. I’m advocating peace instead of apartheid, but there is no doubt that inside Palestine now there is a gross example of apartness or apartheid with the Palestinians horribly oppressed and deprived of equal access to areas where Israeli settlers are living, and all of this is on Palestinian land. So the people on the West Bank are kept deliberately apart. In fact, there is a new law that [was] supposed to go into effect in January that will prohibit any Palestinian even from riding in an automobile without an Israeli license plate. So the Israeli settlements are deep inside the West Bank. They’re connected with each other and Jerusalem by major roadways, and the Palestinians can’t use those roadways or even cross them.

And that adds fuel to the fire?

Obviously it deeply aggravates people to be deprived an access to their own land. Quite often the Israeli restraints, including the massive wall that they are building, prohibit the Palestinians from going from their home to their garden or to their church or to their fields where they have formally cultivated sheep or goats.

How do they get there then?

They don’t. They can’t get there.

Do you ever despair or lose hope?

I get discouraged, but I don’t despair because there’s a basic underlying premise that does give hope, and that is that the overwhelming portion of Israelis would like to swap this confiscated land for peace and the overwhelming portion of Palestinians, East Jordanians [and] Egyptians, all want peace. The problem is with a minority of Israelis who believe that they would rather have land than peace.

What lessons did you learn from the hostage crisis and how would those lessons apply to Iran and Iraq?

The pertinent lesson that applies is that when you have a disagreement with someone you should talk to them and have negotiations. I think that’s one lesson that I learned not only in dealing with Egyptians and Israelis who had been at war four times in 25 years, but also in resolving other disputes that occurred while I was president and since then, as well. We’ve negotiated peace agreements among a lot of people, never by refusing to talk to them.

Oil prices were out of control when you were president. Are we better or worse off today?

We’ve gotten worse. When I was elected president we were importing about nine million barrels of oil per day. Five years later, primarily because of my policies, we reduced that to five million barrels a day. And now it’s back up to 12 million barrels a day. This means that we are dependent on sometimes even antagonistic governments to provide us with the oil that we desperately need, and it constrains the freedom that America has to implement its own foreign policies, as we did with the Saudis, as we did with the Nigerians, as we did with the people in Venezuela and other oil suppliers. This over-dependence on oil is a very serious detriment to our country’s future.

You helped deliver 75 million treatments of Merck’s drug, Mectizan, and built 200,000 latrines in Ethiopia. How do you strategize such massive undertakings?

We have a good organization with about 150 people in all, including secretaries and janitors and some of the world’s foremost experts on the different diseases. We’ve adopted six diseases that we address where they’re prevalent, but particularly in Africa. We have programs that span 35 countries in Africa, and it’s really gratifying for us to let the African people, once they are familiar with the causes of the disease, correct their own problem. Our goal is to teach them how to do their own work, and we don’t put our name on anything. We don’t put Jimmy Carter’s name or Carter Center’s name. We call it Global 2000 so the local village leader and the president of the nation can say, “My Global 2000 program reduced malaria by so much,” instead of saying the Carter Center did it. So we try to give them credit for anything we do together.

So you don’t have an ego?

I do, but I pretend not to.

What do you want to be remembered for?

The promotion of human rights. That became the major crusade that I adopted. We also expanded the definition of human rights—not just the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, but [also] the right of a person to have a decent home, decent health care, an education, self respect and human dignity.

What’s the greatest challenge that the world faces during the new millennium? 

The growing chasm between the rich people in the world and the poor people in the world, and this applies not only inside our country between rich folks and people in the slums, but it also applies between rich nations on the one hand and the poorest nations on the other. And the more we get richer and they get poorer, the more likely it is that we don’t know they exist or what they’re about and we don’t have any communication with them anymore. So I think that’s the biggest challenge the world faces today.

Your mom, a nurse, crossed lines of segregation to help poor African-American women in the 1920s. What lessons did you learn from that? 

I learned that segregation, as I knew when I grew up in the South—in fact, all over our nation it was a law of the land—was a millstone not only around the deaths of our persecuted and oppressed black citizens and neighbors, but also it was a millstone around the neck of white people who were doing the persecution.

What is the message you would like people to get from your book?

That peace is possible and that it’s being obstructed mainly by a minority of Israelis who insist on confiscating and colonizing Palestinian land. And that this is contrary to all the international agreements. It’s contrary to the basic policies of the U.S. government and to previous agreements that have been consummated by Israeli leaders, for which they got the Noble Peace Prizes.

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007