Carter visits West Bank settlers to ’listen’
By Matti Friedman
NEVE DANIEL, West Bank -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a vocal critic of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, ventured into one such settlement on Sunday and told its hardline residents that their community is among those which should be able to remain in place under a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Settler leader Shaul Goldstein called Carter "brave" for visiting and said the 85-year-old former president "understood what we said about our heritage here and ties to the land here."
Carter, who brokered Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, has become a controversial figure in the Jewish state after meeting with the anti-Israel militants of Hamas and writing a book warning that Israel’s West Bank occupation risked replicating apartheid South Africa.
Carter described his visit to Neve Daniel, located just south of Jerusalem, as a chance to listen and to make his views known.
Despite his belief that Israel should relinquish occupied land to the Palestinians, Carter told Neve Daniel’s residents that he expects their community and others built near the line between Israel and the West Bank to remain in Israeli hands.
"This particular settlement is not one that I envision ever being abandoned, or changed over into a Palestinian territory," Carter said. "This is part of the close settlements to the 1967 line that I think will be here forever."
Israel is under heavy pressure from President Barack Obama to freeze all construction in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians. The United States and most of the international community consider the settlements obstacles to peace since they cement Israeli control over areas likely to be part of a future Palestinian state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to halt settlement construction, saying they should be allowed to expand to accommodate "natural growth" in their populations.
Obama has rejected this argument, but Carter’s comments indicated that even staunch proponents of Palestinian statehood realize it will be difficult to secure a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
Carter arrived in this pastoral settlement in a motorcade. He was met with warm handshakes from his hosts.
Carter said he was "here to listen" to the settlers, and that he hoped to "make sure they understand my own attitude toward Israel and the Jewish population in the world and toward the Jewish settlers."
Later, Carter sat in Goldstein’s living room, positioned under five books of the Hebrew Bible on a bookshelf.
"This is our homeland, but we recognize there are other people living next to us," Goldstein told him, referring to the Palestinians.
Settlers, and many other Israelis, see the West Bank as the Jewish people’s biblical heartland.
In a controversial 2007 book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Carter argued that Israel has to choose between ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians in a peace deal or maintaining a system of ethnic inequality similar to that of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Views like that have made Carter unpopular among settlers and their supporters. A group of local settlers circulated an open letter titled, "Jimmy Carter go home," saying the former president was an "anti-Semite" and "not welcome here."