Timing the placement into movie theaters the last two weeks of the new documentary, "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains," before the proposed Middle East conference in Annapolis this year was not intentional. But the irony of the former president’s clarity on the Palestinian question contrasts sharply with the refusal by George W. Bush to face harsh reality that casts a pall over hopes to conclude his presidency with a diplomatic triumph.
In the film, Carter repeatedly and unequivocally states what Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates view as undeniable: to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace with all its benefits for the world, Israel must end its illegal and oppressive occupation of the West Bank. That is a prerequisite that neither President Bush nor congressional leaders of both parties can approach for fear of being labeled anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic (as Carter has been).
With the end to the occupation not on any participant’s agenda, hopes for substantive accomplishment at Annapolis are dim. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Oct. 24, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned of "further radicalization of Palestinian politics, of politics in the region" if "we lose the window for a two-state solution." But she did not mention the forbidden words of Israeli removal from the West Bank.
These words are not forbidden in "Man From Plains." I was surprised when a publicist for the movie invited me to a private screening in advance of its Washington debut Saturday. For the past 32 years, I had been a critic of Carter — but not of his most recent and most attacked book, "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid."
The unusual documentary is mainly an account of Carter’s travels promoting his 21st book. Nothing normally would seem more boring than presentation of a book tour. But Jonathan Demme, the Academy Award-winning director of "The Silence of the Lambs," has produced a beautiful, fascinating film, whose two hours sped by.
Demme told me he intended the documentary as a "portrait in motion" of the 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whom he greatly admires, "to find out what makes Jimmy Carter tick." But it became a condemnation of what Demme now calls "land-grabbing" from the "oppressed" Palestinian people.
The film is more assertive than the book, which tends to be prolix in recounting Carter’s experiences with Israel. It was the word "apartheid" in the title that spawned instant accusations of anti-Semitism against the former president and led 14 members of the Carter Center’s board of counselors to resign. Not until page 215 near the end of the slim book did Carter make it clear that the "policy now being followed" on the West Bank is "a system of apartheid with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic rights."
In the movie, Carter repeatedly declares Israel must end its occupation of Palestine for peace to have a chance. The hecklers at his appearances and confused interviewers only provoke a stubborn Carter, who says chopping up the West Bank is actually worse than apartheid, just as Palestinian peace-seekers told me this year in Jerusalem.
A broader, more detailed analysis can be found in the newly updated American version of "Lords of the Land" by Prof. Idith Zertal and leading Israeli columnist Akiva Eldar. This scathing account of the occupation, first published in Israel in 2005, declares former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for a security wall was intended to "take hold of as much West Bank territory as possible and block the establishment of a viable Palestinian state."
As Israelis, Eldar and Zertal employ language that not even Carter dares use: "Israel’s lofty demands that Palestinians strengthen their democracy and impose control on extremist organizations is . . . nothing but deceptive talk covering its own deeds, which are aimed at achieving exactly the opposite — of eroding Palestinian society."
Carter goes further in this direction than any other prominent American in "Man From Plains," and people who wander into a movie theater to see the film may be shocked. It raises questions that must at least be asked for the contemplated conference at Annapolis to have any chance.