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Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, West Bank, and Gaza - June 2-17, 2009

June 17, 2009

The purpose of this trip was to join other Carter Center observers during the Lebanese election and to visit leaders involved in the overall peace process in Syria, Israel, and Palestine. In Lebanon, approximately 60 Carter Center observers from 23 nations were led by David Carroll, and former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdulkarim al Eryani was my co-chairman.

LEBANON ELECTION: 702 candidates competed for 128 parliamentary seats in 26 districts. In a "confessional" system more than 65 years old, it was prearranged that seats be divided equally between Christians and Muslims, distributed as follows: Maronite Christians 34; Greek Orthodox 14; Greek Catholic 8; Sunni Muslim 27; Shi'a Muslim 27; Druze 8; Armenian 6; Alawite 2; Protestant 1; other Christians 1.

Two alliances evolved: the March 14 group (Sunnis and others), with Saudi Arabia and U.S. backing, having 70 seats; and the March 8 group (Shi'a and others), with Iran and Syria backing, having 58 seats. Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah), Speaker Nabih Berri (Amal - the original Shi'a political party, now aligned with Hezbollah), and General Michel Aoun led March 8 and Saad Hariri led March 14.

The swing districts were Christian, with leaders split between the two coalitions. General Michel Aoun is allied with the Shi'a, and Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt, and Amin Gemayel with the Sunni. It was obvious that March 8 coalition wanted to make gains but Hezbollah did not seek to increase its 11 seats, and contested no new ones.

Election experts said this could be the first free and fair election since 1972. Before the election, we met with the major political leaders (Hezbollah decided that I should not join our Center's team that met with them), while our observer teams were deployed in the 26 electoral districts.

On Election Day Rosalynn and I visited 28 polling sites. There were many minor infractions of electoral procedures, but in general it was a good election with the results accepted peacefully by both sides. The previous parliamentary alignment of 55 percent for March 14 and 45 percent for March 8 remained unchanged. The major deciding factors were local in nature, but a friendlier attitude toward Obama and America may have helped March 14. (Although March 8 fell short of expected gains, it actually increased by one seat over the 2005 election result and received about 100,000 more popular votes.)

There seems to be a consensus that electoral reforms are necessary and will be adopted. While maintaining the basic division of power in the confessional system, some of the major ones we will recommend are:

a) A pre-printed uniform ballot instead of those individually prepared by political factions;

b) Reduction of the voting age from 21 to 18;

c) Proportional representation within each constituency;

d) More women in office (now 2 of 128 legislators);

e) Voting by qualified ex-patriots in Lebanese embassies abroad (instead of massive return to their family homes to vote); and

f) Stricter enforcement of campaign spending limits.

March 8 candidates prevailed throughout Southern Lebanon, which Amal leader Berri called a victory for "resistance, national unity, and liberation." As the new government is formed during the coming weeks, a major decision will be whether the "one-third blocking" formula (or some alternative) will be continued. This was established in the Doha agreement to give March 8 a veto power over important legislation. (Note:  Reached in Qatar between March 8 and March 14, the Doha agreement permitted the divided parties to resolve differences and finally elect a president.  One major question was permitting Hezbollah to retain their weapons as long as Israel occupies parts of Lebanon.)

After making our post-election report, I had an extended discussion about the Middle East at Lebanese American University with about 25 top business and financial leaders. They laughed when I asked if any of them had ever visited Israel. Still technically at war, Lebanon-Israel peace talks are not feasible until Israel withdraws from Syria's Golan Heights – and from Lebanon's Shebaa Farms and Ghajjar village.

Before leaving Lebanon I met with Speaker Berri, Prime Minister Siniora, President Suleiman, future PM Hariri, Interior Minister Baroud, Shi'a leader Ayatollah Fadlallah, and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. There is a general consensus that the issue of Hezbollah weapons will not be raised in the new government. Since this was the primary reason for the "one-third veto," there should not be major impediments to forming the new government.

President Suleiman's national dialogue--a discussion among the major factions to prevent serious disagreements--involves 14 top political leaders, and will resume meetings when new cabinet members have been selected. The two sure bets are Saad Hariri for prime minister and Nabih Berri for speaker. Hezbollah is likely to be satisfied with its existing ministry of labor.

SYRIA AND HAMAS: Leaving Beirut by car and after stopping in resort town Zahle, Lebanon, for lunch with the Chief of Protocol, we went to Damascus and had a long session with Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Mouallem and the next morning with President Bashar al Assad. They were somewhat peeved at U.S. "intervention" in the Lebanese election, eager to have friendly relations with the U.S., believe recent diplomatic meetings were wasted opportunities, look forward to Senator George Mitchell's visit this week, want to help with Iraq border crossing security and the overall Mideast peace process.

After a long walk through the old city tracing the path of St. Paul, we met with Khaled Meshaal and other leaders of Hamas. Our primary goals were to induce them to comply with the Quartet's "3 conditions" (recognize Israel's right to exist;  forgo violence; and accept previous peace agreements), help form a unity government with elections next January, and exchange the release of Corporal Shalit for a reasonable number of prisoners held by Israel. As in previous meetings, my impression was that they were frank and honest with me, listening carefully, quickly accepting or rejecting my suggestions, and being flexible when possible. I left written proposals for them to consider.

ISRAEL AND WEST BANK: The next morning Hrair Balian, Rick Jasculca, and I drove through Jordan to East Jerusalem, where we were joined by Human Rights Director Karin Ryan, and I met with Naom Shalit, father of the captive soldier, who gave me a letter for his son. I then had an extensive interview with Ha'aretz and meetings with U.S. Consul General Walles (responsible for Palestinian affairs), Ambassador Cunningham, and General Dayton – none of whom can visit or deal with Gaza. We were glad to learn that the primary responsibilities for the entire peace process will be with Senator Mitchell, and that Dayton will work for him.

Saturday morning our first meeting in Ramallah was with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a political activist who gave us an insightful overview of the Middle East. Six of his party members were arrested the previous day by the Palestinian Authority police, who have become aggressive and abusive. We then participated in a forum of all political parties and election officials preparing for the vote scheduled for 1/25/10. They are unanimous in insisting that Hamas must be included.

I then met with Minister of Interior Sayed Abu Ali* and his police commander. The minister seemed to think he should arrest any activist supporting Hamas, including well known NGOs and financial groups, and could name none of the 600 or more prisoners who had been given a civilian trial or legal council. Many of the prisoners, such as the associates of Barghouti, are obviously just political opponents of Fatah. We then met with Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, who promised to investigate police policies and correct abuses. 

After lunch with our Palestinian Advisory Group we met with three Hamas members of the Palestine Legislative Council (an economist graduate of Iowa State University, a graduate of University of Alabama, and a medical doctor trained in Italy.)  They had recently been released from Israeli prisons after serving their 33-month term because they were elected in January 2006. 35 elected legislators are still in prison plus 12 men whom Hamas had proposed as ministers in a unity government. They had a copy of the proposal I had made to Meshaal in Damascus and we discussed its wording.

I then received an award from PalTel Foundation and made a speech to a large audience, including the Prime Minister and several members of his cabinet. Our last event of the day was a meeting with Christian leaders at the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, who expressed their concern about government policies that were rapidly reducing the number of Christians in Israel and Palestine.

HOUSE DEMOLITION, ISRAELI SETTLEMENT: Sunday, June 14: We first visited a family in East Jerusalem that was being forced to destroy the second floor of their small house, allegedly built years ago without a proper permit. They were trying to save the high cost they would have to pay the Israelis for doing the demolition. The father had gone to court to request an extension of the deadline because the lower wall had cracked and engineering advice was needed. We learned later that his request was granted, but with a 3-day limit and a 10,000 shekel ($2,600) fine.

We then met with President Shimon Peres, who had read Netanyahu's speech and took a very hard line on all issues. At Kerev Foundation, Yossi Beilin explained the status of the Geneva Initiative annexes (basic proposals unchanged), and then we drove to the Gush Etzion settlement south of Jerusalem. This is one of the settlements that, under the Geneva Initiative, would be within the 2 percent of Palestine to be swapped to Israel. Mayor Shaul Goldstein and seven other settlers did everything possible to make me feel welcome and at home. We disagreed on a number of issues, but had a pleasant discussion.

NETANYAHU'S SPEECH: I watched his speech and was appalled by his introduction of numerous obstacles to peace, some of them insurmountable. He rejected sharing of Jerusalem and a settlement freeze and defined any future Palestinian state as demilitarized, no control over airspace, still including many Israeli settlements, and probably without the Jordan valley – provided they remove Hamas and all other Arabs will accept Israel as a Jewish state (with 20 percent Arab citizens). I've been involved with these issues for 30 years, and none of them are acceptable, except perhaps through give-and-take negotiations.

ISRAELI KNESSET: Monday morning was very challenging and exciting. Although all the government ministers declined to meet with me, I had a delightful visit with Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin. He then escorted me to a long session with the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, perhaps the most important of all. The chairman, Tzahi Hanegbi, is the son of Geula Cohen, who disrupted the Knesset when Prime Minister Begin was trying to introduce me to speak in March 1979. She was removed by force, and now criticizes her son for deviating from her condemnation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty or any other similar departure from a commitment to an "Eretz (Greater) Israel."

I was grilled for 1½ hours with almost universally negative and aggressive questions, with many of them designed for the benefit of their fellow members. I was able to answer all of them, as they were respectful and listened carefully to my responses. Afterward many of them crowded around for a photograph. This was one of the high points of the trip.

During our time in Jerusalem we also met with Civil Society leaders and key players in the peace and human rights movements.

GAZA: Our last day was spent in Gaza, a heartbreaking, infuriating, and embarrassing experience. After being welcomed in a huge Israeli checkpoint, larger than a football field – designed for thousands and used by dozens - we drove a few yards and passed through a small manually operated gate into the northern end of the completely walled-in community. The devastation was horrific in what had been an area of small businesses and workshops. They had been first bombed and then the rubble leveled by huge bulldozers. All the agricultural areas along the borders with Israel were empty because the Israelis still fired on anyone who entered, assuming that they might launch a missile or mortar round.

Knowing that there was precision guidance on the American-built bombs and missiles launched from F-16s and Apache helicopters, it was hard to understand why the large American School had been completely destroyed and several hospitals heavily damaged. The U.N. estimates that, in addition, 50,000 homes were completely wiped out or severely damaged. We saw the precise destruction of the assembly hall for the Palestinian parliament and other official buildings.

We were not surprised to get a warning from American officials in Jerusalem that I should leave Gaza immediately because my life was in imminent danger. I then spoke to the parents and 250 graduating students from UNRWA's school and planted a beautiful tree given to us by Speaker Berri in Lebanon. We drove to another building where we had extensive meetings with Prime Minister Haniya and other government officials who are pleading for building materials and other supplies to be permitted to enter, either from Egypt or Israel. They propose that no money be sent and that any rebuilding be completely controlled by U.N. or other agencies not under their control. So far, after five months, not a sack of cement, a pane of glass, or a board of lumber has been approved by Israel. This amounts to continuing criminal abuse of 1½ million helpless people, condoned or ignored by the United States, Egypt, and the international community.

They intend to continue preventing any missiles or mortar fire into Israel. After meeting with groups of wounded orphans and families of Palestinian prisoners, I delivered a letter from Naom Shalit to be given to his son, and made the same arguments as in Damascus for peace and reconciliation. They will work with the Egyptians to comply.

Before heading home from Tel Aviv, we met with Mr. Shalit, the U.S. ambassador, the Egyptian consul general, and I had my fourth press conference of the day. All of us were pleased with the entire trip.

*The Interior Minister represents the Palestine Authority government, under Prime Minister Fayad.  It was not elected, but just appointed.  The leaders elected in January 2006 (Hamas majority and Haniya PM) rejects its legitimacy but accepts Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as leader of Palestinians, since he is head of the PLO, the only organization recognized also by Israel.

Read Transcript of President Carter's Meeting with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Israeli Knesset, June 15, 2009 >

Gaza Speech by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to United Nations Relief and Works Agency's Human Rights Graduation, June 16, 2009 >>

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