By Mick Krever, Claire Calzonetti & Juliet Fuisz, CNN
The differences to bridge for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians are not as great now as they were between Israel and Egypt during the groundbreaking Camp David accords, Former President Jimmy Carter told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.
“The differences between the two are not nearly so great as they were then,” Carter said, “if Israel will still accept, which they did in 1978 and ‘79, that the acquisition of territory by force is not legal.”
President Carter’s efforts as president led to the groundbreaking first-ever peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, known as the Camp David Accords.
Direct negotiations between Israel and another neighbor, the Palestinians, now look more real than they have in years, thanks to the work of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
President Carter – as a member of The Elders, a group of distinguished former presidents, veteran diplomats, and other leaders founded by Nelson Mandela – is using his years of experience to try to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.
He spoke with Amanpour in London along with fellow-Elder Lakhdar Brahimi, the longtime diplomat who is currently the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria.
Brahimi told Amanpour that one of the toughest issues to be worked out in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the right of Palestinians to return to their erstwhile homes now in Israeli territory, may not actually be as difficult as it is made out to be.
“The injustice that has been done to these people has to be recognized,” Brahimi said. “Once you have recognized that … I think that the Palestinians are mature enough and responsible enough and realistic enough to know that not every single Palestinian who left, or was thrown out of their homes and their villages – their descendants will be accepted again in Israel.”
The former U.S. president said that borders will be the keystone to a breakthrough.
“The borders between Israel and the Palestinians is the crucial issue,” President Carter said. “After that is resolved to some degree, then the settlers and other things will fall into shape.”
The issues to surmount during negotiations between Israel and Egypt, Carter said, were greater.
“We had just seen elected in Israel a very hardliner, as you know, Menachem Begin, who had sworn not to give up any territory,” Carter explained. “So we went to Camp David with not very much hope on the Israeli side. But eventually, I think the Israelis saw … what peace could bring to the whole people there.”
As the joint envoy to Syria, Brahimi must deal with an issue seemingly even more intractable than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He almost stepped down from his post earlier this year, but U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly begged him to stay on, and he is still on the job.
“We are, you know, begging and warning and appealing to everybody to understand this very simple fact: There is no military victory,” Brahimi told Amanpour. “This problem, like all problems, has to be solved and will be solved - and it will be solved through a political process. And the earlier you start that political process, the better for the Syrian people.”
The United States has said it will start supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, but has been very wary to become involved in a more meaningful way, without a fully formed public policy.
“I think one of the mistakes from the very beginning was that Assad had to step down as a first step, which was never possible,” President Carter said. “That was an American position.”
The other impediment to American involvement, the former U.S. president said, has been concern about the goals of the opposition.
“A lot of them are very radical, maybe al Qaeda and so forth. Some of them [are] more committed to democracy,” Carter said. “And they are divided.”
Carter nonetheless praised the work of Brahimi, as well as his predecessor, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Since leaving office, Carter has focused much of his attention on international issues, but as a former U.S. president, he nonetheless has much experience with the kind of national security issues presented by the case of Edward Snowden, who revealed communications spying by the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA).
“The revelation of what has been done – not the details of it, but, the fact that we were listened to, with our telephone calls and our cell phones and everything else,” Carter said, “was something that's now precipitated a debate.”
That a conversation has been started about these issues “has been good,” Carter contended.
“But what Snowden did is obviously a serious violation of the law.”