Hollow Optimism

The Blood of Abraham By Jimmy Carter Houghton Mifflin Co,; 208 pp.; 515.95.

MAYEE HISTORY will be kinder to Jimmy Carter than his contemporaries have been. Almost five years after he was swept out of office, the former President's name still conjures up unsettling images of economic decline and national weakness for many Americans. But, the Carter years also saw two foreign policy triumphs often forgotten by those too quick to dismiss his presidency as an era of national failure. The first was his adoption of a strong human rights policy in our dealings with dictators abroad. And the second was the 1978 signing of the Camp David accords ending three decades of war between Israel and Egypt.

For Carter, concluding the accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the high point of a frustrating four years in the White House. For our first fundamentalist President, bringing the leaders of two holy land nations together for un-precedented face-to-face negotiation was more than just a political maneuver. The quest for peace in the land of the Bible has been a special concern of Carter's, a concern that outlasted his pay in the oval office.

In 1983, five years after the Camp David accords, Carter returned to the Middle East. Accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn, and Emory University Middle East expert Kenneth Stein, he visited the key nations in the region--Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. In each nation, Carter talked to both national leaders and ordinary people in order to gain En understanding of the nature and dimensions of the current stalemate in the area. His latest book, The Blood of Abraham, is the result of these years of questioning, bringing to the page a scattering of insight gained on this trip and during his four White House years.

Carter called his autobiography Why Not the Best? In his latest book, he brings the same self-confidence to his discussion of the complex world of Middle East politics. In slightly more than 200 pages, he attempts not only to discuss in detail the current issues dividing nations and factions in this troubled region, but also to place the current disagreements in a historical perspective stressing the clash of faiths and leaders in the region that had their genesis in biblical times.

But like the Zionist settlers who began to return to the holy land more than a century ago and the Arabs they encountered upon arrival, Carter's two historical planes achieve at best an uneasy co-existence. The juxtaposition of ancient history and the most recent developments would be difficult under the best of circumstances. But in The Blood of Abraham, Carter's tendency to mix bureaucratic jargon with country-style religious musing only aggravates the difficulties inherent in this approach.


When he discusses the current issues confronting the region's leaders and their allies in Washington and Moscow, for example, Carter slips back four years and settles into State Departmental lingo. In a tone reminiscent of the memos he had to wade through during his yours in the oval office, he methodically lists the goals, interests and strategies of all of the area's key actors.

But his discussion of the region's long history of conflict over land and (move often) religion has quite a different flavor. With detail worthy of Plains. George's most famous Sunday school teacher, Carter devotes five pages in the book's introduction to a recap of the book of Genesis. Similarly, he describes how, during his first visit to Jerusalem he awoke before dawn to "catch a flavor" of the ancient city as if "might have been two thousands years earlier when Jesus strolled the same streets." For Carter juxtaposing ancient history and yesterday's news is essential. But for readers of The Blood of Abraham, his shifts in tone and style are just plain confusing.

Biblical scholars aside, few will find much reason to quibble with Carter's survey of the distant past. This is not true of his analysis of the present situation. For the most part, Carter succeeds in the difficult task of retaining objectivity while discussing the many facets of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its bloody spinoff, the Lebanese civil war. But, as is perhaps inevitable, he occasionally drops his guard.

The first lapse comes early in the book, during Carter's discussion of the 1973 war. Discussing the response of Western European nations to the war, Carter praises them for maintaining their "balanced" attitude toward the conflict. The evidence for this assertion: the fact that "none of the European countries would permit the United States to refuel its aircraft taking supplies to Israel..." With balanced support like this, Israeli leaders are wont to note, who needs enemies?

While Israel's survival is a good deal more assured today than it was in 1973, this does not justify Carter's tendency to belittle Israeli fears about the ultimate aims of its neighbors. For example, neither he nor the academics (including Harvard Government Professor Nadav Safran) who helped him research the book call Yasir Arafat to account for his statement to Carter that "the PLO has never advocated the annihilation of Israel." A quick scan of the organization's charter, which rejects the notion that a Palestinian state can coexist with a Jewish one, would have refused this statement in spirit, if not in letter.

Although Arafat has changed for the better over the years, this does not excuse Carter's proclivity to give him the benefit of the doubt. It also reveals Carter's tendency to understate the fact that the assassination of two moderate Arab leaders has reduced Israel's faith in the durability of any potential peace agreement. The Killing of Sasat, like the murder of Jordan's King Abdullah in the early 1950's, has left a deep impression on Israelis of all political stripes, an impression Carter ignores in the book.

A decade ago, Israeli writer and peace advocate Amos Elon noted regretfully that Israelis "don't really have anyone to talk to" in the Arab world. After Sadat's death and the factionalization of the PLO in the wake of the Lebanon crisis, this is truer than ever. Yet in a book that attempts to get behind the news to discuss the attitudes forming the current standoff between Israel and her neighbors, communication rifts between Israel and Egypt are largely ignored.

The most important ingredient for peace in the Middle East, Carter suggests, is a generation of political leaders, both in the region and among their superpower allies, having the courage and vision of Sadat. In his interviews with such figures as Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad, neither known for his dedication to the peace process, Carter tries to give the impression that the current crop of Middle Eastern leaders have more than a slight interest in working to end the socio-political conflicts. Assad, for interested in my efforts to arrange peace negotiation," an appraisal which might surprise those who have dealt with the Syrian leader.

But it is easy to see these assessments as an attempt by Carter to put the best face on a bad situation. The bold steps taken at Camp David seven years ago have yet to flower into a broader agreement. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon has stalled even the warming between Israel and Egypt. And even the latest initiative by former foes Jordanian King Hussein and PLO head Arafat has met with skepticism from most Israelis.

Given these developments, the optimism Carter expresses at the end of the book rings hollow. Moreover, the reader is not offered a compelling reason to believe that, in a region that Carter writes has been "characterized by tremendous suffering and conflict among its peoples," peace is likely to come any time soon. Indeed, both the long-run historical perspective and the outline of current events suggest that peace is hardly around the corner.

Against this preponderance of pessimism, Carter closes the book by suggesting that, because of their common biblical dissent and their obvious desire for peace, the peoples of the Middle East can live together without the threat of violence among and between adherents of the three major faiths. But during the last two millennia this common heritage has proved too weak a tourniquet to stop the blood of Abraham from flowing. Carter offers little reason to believe that times have changed.