President Jimmy Carter's Nobel Prize: Carter Risked All for Middle East Peace

Article excerpt

William James Martin is a free-lance writer living in Chapel Hill, NC.

In announcing that former President Jimmy Carter would be the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, which he received on Dec. 10, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, "In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international cooperation based on international law, respect for human rights, and economic development."

The committee added that "Carter's mediation was a vital contribution to the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, in itself a great enough achievement to qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize."

With Carter's re-election defeat in November of 1980, the American electorate squandered the considerable momentum generated by his administration for a comprehensive Middle East peace, and initiated the transformation of the region into a bloodier, more volatile one in which justice was further removed The region responded to the passive and disengaged character of Carter's successor, President Ronald Reagan, as Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon which claimed the lives of 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and included the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The number of Palestinian civilians slaughtered there roughly equaled the number of those killed in the World Trade Center nearly two decades later.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was pushed reluctantly into signing the Camp David accords by a tenacious Jimmy Carter, skillful at intellectual debate, determined to do the impossible, and willing to put his presidency on the line in one bold gamble.

In his memoir Keeping Faith, Carter records moments of despair in which he wished to be rid of the whole Middle East problem and regretted having gotten involved in it in the first place. Solving the Middle East equation was a thankless task, he observed, unappreciated by the American people, and his efforts to this end had eroded his political support. His standing in public opinion polls actually dropped upon his return to the United States from his journey to Cairo and Jerusalem--where, for the second time, Carter had put his presidency on the line in order to achieve an agreement for the implementation of the Camp David accords.

Carter attributed this particular decline in his approval rating to the hypercritical press coverage. He found himself in the ironic position, for a politician, of having devoted the greatest part of his time and energy to an issue which at best was controversial, and at worst had eroded the 80 percent approval rating he had enjoyed for the first few months of his tenure. This precipitous decline in Carter's popularity coincided exactly with Carter's announcement that the Palestinian people had a right to a homeland.

Jimmy Carter has been the only American president to take an interest in the Middle East from the outset of his administration and to envision a final solution to this century-old conflict. All other American presidents, including Reagan and George W. Bush, have become involved in this region only in response to a crisis--and, in the case of Bush, only reluctantly and to the least extent possible. The evidence is clear that Carter's initiative in pressing Sadat for movement toward a settlement is what prompted the Egyptian leader's journey to Jerusalem. …