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Camp David in July 2000: What Went Wrong

From Challenge No. 65
January-February 2001


f anyone still believed that US President Bill Clinton could serve as a fair mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the latest bridging proposal ought to have ended the illusion. Arab journalists dub it "the Israeli document adopted by Clinton." This criticism derives, in part, from a steep rise in the threshold of Palestinian demands. But not only that. The Clinton proposal marks a retreat from past official American positions. Here are three examples:

1. The question of the settlements: Since 1967 Washington has officially called them illegal. But Clinton has now accepted Israel's position, allowing it to annex parts of the West Bank containing about 80% of the settlers. He thus accepts the Israeli interpretation of UN Resolution 242, which calls for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Territories, says Israel, not all territories.

2. The question of Jerusalem: The US has never recognized Israel's annexation of Jerusalem, but now Clinton is proposing that the two sides divide the city on an ethnic basis. He also grants Israel partial sovereignty in the Haram a-Sharif (the "Noble Sanctuary" containing the al-Aqsa Mosque), aka Temple Mount, likewise conquered by Israel in 1967.

3. The question of refugees: Clinton accepts the Israeli proposal, recognizing the reunification of families as sufficient fulfilment on its part of UN Resolution 194, which calls for the restoration of all refugees. (Family reunification accounts for a very small number.)

The bottom line: America sides with Israel in its long-standing contempt for international covenants.

And yet one can also look at the Clinton paper from a different angle. The proposals he makes to the Palestinians – on some of which Israel is ready to sign – are quite far-reaching compared to anything ever offered before. Take, for instance, Israel's agreement to the division of Jerusalem. Such an idea was taboo till now both for the Labor Party and the Likud. In 1996, we recall, Shimon Peres lost the election largely because of a Likud scare campaign, claiming he would divide Jerusalem. And Ehud Barak, in 1999, ran on the slogan: "A united Jerusalem under the sovereignty of Israel."

Or the West Bank: Yitzhak Rabin planned to return only half. The Clinton proposal talks about more than 90%, and Barak seems willing.

Despite such unprecedented Israeli concessions, Yasser Arafat has difficulty saying Yes. The reason does not have to do with the content of the proposal. His reluctance stems rather from the fact that the Palestinian people have lost all faith in the "peace process".

What has gone wrong and why? The failure of the Camp David summit in July was certainly a landmark, but the answer begins further back. After withdrawing unilaterally from Lebanon in May, Barak strove with all his might to achieve a breakthrough on the Palestinian track. He knew that the US elections were coming, and he wanted to get the most out of the sympathetic Clinton regime. Israel is a country with enormous economic potential, but she cannot enter the global market in a major way as long as the conflict goes on. Barak became obsessed with achieving the "declaration of an end to the conflict". Disregarding impediments, he forged full speed ahead.

The impediments came from escaping coalition partners. On becoming prime minister, we recall, Barak did not want to include the Arab MK's in his government. The only remaining alternative was to set up a coalition based on the moderate-to-extreme right wing, including the settlers' party, Mafdal (aka National Religious Party), Natan Sharansky's immigrants' party (Yisrael ba'Aliyah), and the Mizrahi orthodox party of Shas. The erection of such a government was a slap in the face to the Palestinians, the Arab world, and the Arab voters in Israel. (The last had cast 95% of their ballots for Barak.) Upon hearing rumors of what was to take place at Camp David, however, the three right-wing partners deserted within a week, leaving Barak in command of only 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. On the international scene, indeed, the Israeli PM could appear as a rare sort of statesman, who would risk his office for the sake of peace. His electoral weakness, however, would impede Arafat from taking major decisions. A wise businessperson does not put all the money on someone facing bankruptcy.

Barak did not heed his right wing, but he didn't heed Arafat either. The latter begged Clinton not to call a summit, because his situation wasn't ripe for major decisions. The Territories, he knew, were on the brink of explosion, and he lacked sufficient authority to make concessions. Yet Barak did not let Clinton rest until he got his way. As for Arafat, dependent on the US as he was, he could not refuse the invitation – and dragged his feet to Camp David. It wasn't surprising, then, when the summit failed. He couldn't sign a single clause, whether with regard to the settlements or the refugees' right of return. He chose to break up the talks, however, precisely on the issue of Haram a-Sharif. This was the safest way out. He knew the Arabs would back him in insisting on Palestinian sovereignty there. No Arab leader would ever yield Islam's third holiest shrine to Israel. He told Clinton it would cost him his head, and he hoped that the other Arab leaders would back him, taking the heat off.

After the failure, matters began to assume their own momentum, beyond the control of either Israel or the PA. With the new intifada, the very thing surfaced that Arafat had whispered in Clinton's ear: "The Palestinian street is mad as hell, and it ain't gonna take it any more."

The voice of the street has forced Israel to bend on the issue of Jerusalem. But this is the voice that nonetheless still prevents an agreement, because of its insistence on the refugees' right of return.

The succession of events described above gives rise to several questions. Why, upon signing the Oslo pact, could Arafat afford to ignore the voice of the people – but not today? And as for the course he has taken – arriving at the threshold of a permanent-status agreement, then returning to the use of force – did he plan it thus from the start?

Seven years ago the PLO leaders were in deep distress. All the states that border Israel, Syria too, were then in America's pocket. Far removed from the Occupied Territories, short on funds and lacking a strategy, the PLO found itself on the verge of annihilation. Israel took note of its distress, realized the possibilities and threw the leaders a lifeline. This was the Oslo Accord. It is founded on the following short-sighted Israeli logic: In the first stage, we'll co-opt their leaders. We'll set them back on their feet, but not as revolutionary heads of a national liberation movement, rather as rulers of an entity with only the external trappings of a state. We'll create material inducements to tie the new ruling elite to us. In this way, even if a conflict of interests arises between the leaders and the street, the former will find it in their interest to restrain and suppress the latter.

According to this scenario, there was no point in discussing topics basic to the conflict, such as the question of the refugees or that of Jerusalem. For in any case, Israel had no intention of ever approaching a radical solution to these problems. She hoped that by the time they arose, if ever, the PA (Palestinian Authority) would be firmly in control – and would be able to impose the agreement in accordance with Zionist interests. Yet Israel's self-assuredness and its contempt for the Palestinian side were so extreme – as expressed, for example, in the continuing closure, or in the lopsided economic arrangements of the Paris Protocol – that the new "Tunisian" partners did not have the minimal conditions for reining in the people and implementing the plan.

Arafat, for his part, accepted Israel's dictates. Either he had lost faith in ultimate victory or he did not want to wait for political conditions to change. The long-sought state would be one in name only. When Israel offered its aegis to a Palestinian dictatorship, similar in form to that in other Arab lands, Arafat did not balk. From 1993 until the present, he did not move a finger toward building the infrastructure that would be needed to remedy decades of plunder. Instead, he took up where Israel left off, allowing his minions from Tunis to do the plundering instead. He busied himself with becoming the despot the pact envisaged.

With the al-Aqsa intifada, a crucial change has taken place. When Palestinians repudiate the American proposal, it is not the details they are rejecting – it is the whole apparatus. This apparatus is the New World Order that the US tried to impose in the wake of the Gulf War. The Oslo pact is part of this Order. Israel's regional supremacy is axiomatic: not only to Israel, also to America.

It is no coincidence that the question of the refugees arises now. Arafat tried by hook and crook to avoid it during the last seven years. In Israel's concept, the Oslo pact was intended to foreclose the right of return. The PA chief, by virtue of his prestige, was supposed to market the Israeli position. The fact that such a question gets to the table at all, therefore, spells doom for the process. Its rise is in the nature of a "work accident". The Palestinian movement will lose its raison d'être if it yields on the right of return. If Israel yields, it will lose its être.

To begin with the Palestinians: to surrender the right of return would amount to annulling the cause that has justified the whole long struggle for liberation. In late 1947, the Palestinians rejected the UN Partition Resolution because they viewed it as an unjust decision, solving the problem of one people at the expense of another. On top of that evil, in the following year, Israel expelled most of them from their homeland. The Palestinians haven't struggled so long in order to build a state for Arafat's "Tunisians", but rather a state that would have the power to bring the refugees back to their homes.

As for Israel, if it opens its doors to five million Palestinian refugees, each who takes the opportunity will thereby diminish the state's Jewish character – a process that could, in principle, go on until the state disappears. What is more, if Israel merely admits responsibility for the refugee problem, it will thus acknowledge the moral stain that is inherent in its very existence.

History is unkind to leaders. It is hard to fix the exact point when the orchestra takes over, and the conductor waves the baton a fraction of a second behind. But this has happened here.

The arrogance of Barak toward the needs of the Palestinians, together with Arafat's indifference to their suffering, have now rendered both irrelevant. Anything the Israeli PM offers today will be met with suspicion and rejection. And Arafat, no matter how defiant a pose he may strike toward Clinton, will never again have the trust and respect that his people granted him before Oslo. The treadmill these leaders are walking has lost its gears. The Palestinian people will have to find itself an alternative apparatus."end"

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