By Paul Findley
At the age of 82, Jimmy Carter entered the lion’s den. With the publication of his latest book, " Palestine : Peace not Apartheid," he did what a patriot would do: rally Americans to vigorous debate of a critical issue that affects our future. He deserves a hero’s praise. Instead, he has been attacked and defamed.
I had the honor to serve as the senior Republican on the Middle East Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee throughout the Carter administration. Carter frequently invited me to huddles in the White House; discussions that would ultimately lead to a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt . I know Carter well and consider him a friend.
I also experienced firsthand what Carter now faces. Toward the end of my 22-year tenure in Congress, I spoke in favor of Palestinian rights and was critical of Israeli policies of Palestinian land confiscation and Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian lands. These actions were counter to American policy and values. They dimmed chances for peace.
As a result of my evenhanded position, the pro-Israel lobby poured money into my opponent’s campaign. I overcame their challenge in 1980 but lost in 1982 by a narrow margin. Still, the message was heard loudly on Capitol Hill: Criticize Israel and pay with your congressional seat.
In my 1985 book, "They Dare to Speak Out," I detailed the tactics used to silence criticism of Israeli policies. One of the groups employing these tactics is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. On its Web site, AIPAC calls itself " America ‘s pro-Israel lobby" and boasts a New York Times description of it as "the most important organization affecting America ‘s relationship with Israel ."
All citizens have the right to band together and push for policies they believe are right. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobby groups do not plead the case for Israel on the stage of public opinion. Instead, they often resort to smear campaigns and intimidation to clear the floor so that only their side is heard.
Carter has dared to call a spade a spade. South African leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and UN Envoy John Dugard, compare Israeli policies to apartheid. The Israeli press uses the term, as do Israeli politicians. Former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni said in a recent commentary, "Indeed apartheid does exist here." Pro-Israel lobby groups have not debated the credence of these claims. Instead, they lob accusations and insults, even insinuating that Carter is anti-Semitic. They do not prove him wrong with facts. They seek to discredit him with innuendo.
I do not believe these groups set out to discredit opponents and destroy free speech. I believe they had the singular purpose of ensuring U.S. government support for Israel . But after decades of Israeli actions running counter to American policies and values, it becomes difficult to do one without the other.
American policy has long held, for example, that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land are illegal. Yet Israel continues to build them. American values demand that all people be treated equally, that rights be doled out in equal measure regardless of one’s race, religion or ethnicity.
Yet, as Carter points out in his book, Israel endows Jewish settlers living on Palestinian land with full rights, while denying those rights to the Palestinians living on their own land.
If these issues were debated openly, U.S. policymakers would have to hold Israel accountable and demand that our financial and diplomatic support be contingent upon Israel upholding American values and policy positions.
Yet there is silence. Critical discussion of Israeli policies is non-existent in Congress. Rather than conducting vigorous committee hearings, as happens with other issues, members of Congress compete to outdo one another in statements of support for Israel . And American tax dollars keep flowing uninterrupted to Israel .
Our unconditional support of Israel damages our credibility on the world stage. It deprives us of potential allies in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It allows Israel to remain intransigent and condemns Palestinian and Israeli children to decades more of conflict.
Open discussion, where all perspectives are debated, leads to good policy. Carter took a stand for what is right: for Americans, for Palestinians and for Israelis. It is time for a sitting president and members of Congress to do the same.
-Paul Findley represented Illinois in the U.S. House for 22 years. He is the author of numerous books, including "They Dare to Speak Out" and "Silent No More." (This article was first published by the Chicago Tribune on Feb 7, 2007; published with permission from the author)