September 24, 2004
We continue to hear the familiar canard that the Palestinians made no counter-offer at Camp David in response to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented concessions. This myth arose from the self-serving story put out by Barak and President Clinton in an attempt to place the entire blame for the summit's failure on Arafat. It was accepted uncritically by much of the American and Israeli media at the time. Since then, fuller, more accurate accounts of the negotiations have recently emerged. These more nuanced accounts of the ill-fated Camp David summit and the failure of the Oslo peace process suggest that the story of the nay-saying Arafat is part fact and part fiction.
Contrary to popular belief and American-Israeli spin, the Palestinians did in fact make a counter-offer at Camp David, according to a new blow-by-blow account published in Israel by former Israeli prime minister Barak’s own chief negotiator, Gilad Sher. It was Barak who rejected the Palestinian proposal, only to come much closer to Palestinian positions six months later in the final belated round of peace talks at Taba. In Just Beyond Reach: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations 1999-2001, Sher reports that on July 21, 2000 the Palestinians presented a map at Camp David consenting to Israel’s annexation of settlements in 2.5% of the West Bank and a more equitable division of Jerusalem, in exchange for an equal land swap from within Israel. At Taba, the Palestinian map proffered on January 23, 2001 showed a 3.5% Israeli annexation, reports Sher, compared with an Israeli offer reflecting a 5% annexation. Sher notes that “this [Palestinian] map was a great improvement over what had been presented to us six months previously at Camp David. The improvement was in its being based on the principle of [settlement] blocs, rather than isolated settlements.” American readers will find his testimony in Charles Enderlin’s Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002, which evolved from interviews with the negotiators aired nationwide in a PBS Frontline TV documentary.
President Bill Clinton, in his memoir, My Life, documents a second Palestinian counter-offer from Arafat at Camp David. The Palestinian leader proposed a division of sovereignty in Jerusalem whereby the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City would become part of Israel, while the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif with its mosques would become part of the Palestinian state. This idea was adopted five months later in Clinton’s December 2000 bridging proposal, accepted (albeit with some reservations) by the Barak government as a basis for the Taba talks. Clinton reports that on the sixth day of the Camp David summit, July 16, “Arafat gave me a letter that seemed to say that if he was satisfied with the Jerusalem question, I could make the final call on how much land the Israelis kept for settlements and what constituted a fair land swap. I took the letter to Barak and spent a lot of time talking to him…Eventually Barak agreed that Arafat’s letter might mean something.”
Ambassador Dennis Ross, chief US peace negotiator under the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations, amplifies on the Arafat counter-offer in his just published memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, dubbing it “a serious counterproposal from the Palestinians.” Barak’s rejection of Arafat’s Camp David proposal meant that any possible concord over territory, settlements and Palestinian statehood was overshadowed by discord over the fate of the holy city, on which the summit foundered. With two Palestinian counter-offers now on record from no less than three unimpeachable American and Israeli sources, it is increasingly apparent that the facile tale often told about the failure of the peace process—“Barak made a generous offer and Arafat said no and responded with terror”—is more the artifice of spin doctors than the fruit of historiography.
These three testimonials by Arafat skeptics suggest that the Palestinian leader’s behavior at Camp David defies the familiar narrative of Arafat as chief saboteur of peace. But even had Barak been willing to accept Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram—an improbable concession given widespread opposition among Israeli Jews—Arafat was unwilling to compromise on the demand for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian right of refugee return to Israel, a principle that is overwhelmingly unacceptable to Jews. Sher maintains that most Palestinian negotiators—but probably not Arafat—would have accepted, and would today accept, a face-saving creative formula on the refugee issue, while strictly limiting the number of refugees that would be allowed to return according to Israel’s sovereign discretion. In the end, the Arafat-as-demon fixation has led to a wholesale flight from negotiations of every kind with any Palestinians. But Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank can’t work without the rehabilitation of a Palestinian partner from the current crop of democratic reformers and pragmatists.
When Barak failed to achieve a peace accord at Camp David, he sought to place exclusive blame on Arafat for the summit’s outcome. President Clinton rallied behind the Israeli leader in the hope of boosting Barak’s sagging political fortunes back home with early elections increasingly likely. The summit took place on the eve of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. As the Clinton Administration entered the US election season, with Vice President Gore as the party’s candidate, Clinton could ill afford that the summit’s breakdown would be viewed as the product of mismanagement of his Administration’s Middle East diplomacy. Both Barak and Clinton desperately needed the fault to be Arafat’s—who alone was not at risk of losing power at the polls in the coming months. Barak soon declared that Arafat was not a partner for negotiations of any kind, a mantra that was quickly adopted by Sharon and the right, whose long-standing anti-Oslo policies it suited just fine.
Arafat’s proposed 2.5% annexation was of course no more viable an opening proposal at Camp David than Barak’s 12%, or the 8% which followed it. Viability, after all, in a negotiation, means the likelihood that the other side will accept a proposal, and that both sides will ultimately be able to generate adequate public support needed for realizing a treaty embodying it. But there was every reason for Barak to have believed his Camp David proposals on Jerusalem and territory were not viable from the standpoint of Palestinian politics, and could not gain acceptance by the other side. A few weeks before Camp David, Major General Amos Malka, then chief of Israeli Military Intelligence, reviewed MI’s picture of Arafat's positions for the Israeli cabinet. In a recent interview in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Malka recounts telling the assembled ministers that “there was no chance that [Arafat] would compromise on 90 percent of the territories or even on 93 percent. He is not a real-estate trader, and he is not going to stop midway. Barak said to me: ‘You are telling me that if I offer him 90 percent, he isn't going to take it? I don't accept your assessment.’ I said to him that indeed, there is no chance that he would accept it.”
Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli, who commanded Israeli forces in Gaza in the mid-nineties and became military secretary to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and head of his “Peace Administration,” explained in an interview in Ha’aretz:
"The Palestinians entered into the Oslo agreement on the understanding that through diplomacy, they could attain the goal they had set themselves since 1988: a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital [with one-for-one land swaps to accommodate Israeli annexation of settlement blocs near the Green Line]. In their view, their great concession was their willingness to make do with 23 percent of the land of Palestine [Israel and the territories]. They thought a solution would be found to the problem of the right of return by means of a trick that would remove its sting. From their point of view, any proposal that fell short of this would not enable them to make concessions on other issues."
In the weeks before Camp David, when asked by a journalist about Barak’s non-negotiable “red lines,” which included a refusal to negotiate based on the 1967 lines or to divide sovereignty in Jerusalem, Arafat responded in a press conference with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem was designed to explore the feasibility of a summit:
“Why did [Barak] implement [UN Security Council] Resolution 425 in South Lebanon? [Israel unilaterally withdrew all the way to the international border between Lebanon and Israel in May 2000, two months before the Camp David summit.] Why did [Israel fully] implement Resolution 242 with the Egyptians and the Jordanians? [Israel relinquished all of the Sinai as part of its peace treaty with Egypt.] Even with Syria [in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations prior to Camp David] they committed themselves to the restoration of all the territories and the evacuation of all the settlements, as was the case in the Sinai…”
Arafat said much the same thing to Clinton at Camp David about why he is unwilling to agree to Israeli sovereignty in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem or over the Muslim holy sites in the Temple Mount/Haram A-Sharif: “The Egyptians insisted on getting the last kilometer of the Sinai at Taba. Between Israel and Lebanon, there are heated discussions about each house in the village of Rajar in South Lebanon. And I’m supposed to give up on Jerusalem?” Dennis Ross reports that most of the American peace team (himself excluded) believed “that the Palestinians were entitled to 100% of the territory” with equal land swaps, not only “on the basis of right, but on the basis that every other Arab negotiating partner had gotten 100 percent. Why should the Palestinians be different?” Unsurprisingly, Arafat recognized the precedents set in all previous peace talks and territorial arrangements between Israel and Arab states. This hardly reflected an unwillingness on Arafat’s part to make peace with Israel or to reach agreements with it, as many now suppose, but rather an insistence on negotiating based on Israel’s own prior conduct.
One can only wonder why Barak arrogantly ignored this familiar history, some of which he himself had been responsible for. Indeed, the Egyptian-Israeli peace process which culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1978, owed its success in no small measure to then Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s commitment to President Sadat’s deputy, prior to Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, that Israel would return the entire Sinai peninsula to Egypt—a full withdrawal—in exchange for a full peace. That commitment was reiterated by Prime Minister Begin during Sadat’s Jerusalem visit. Both Clinton and Ross report that Rabin made a similar offer to Clinton regarding peace with Syria; Barak’s own territorial offer to Syrian president Asad in the negotiations preceding Camp David, involving a virtually complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, did not seriously deviate from this principle. Yet Barak managed somehow to pretend that all these precedents would be ignored when the Palestinian turn finally came.
Agreement or Bust?
General Malka has stated that it was the assessment of Military Intelligence, shared with Barak well before Camp David, that to do a peace deal Arafat required Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram. Dennis Ross reports that at a meeting in Washington, D.C. on April 11, 2000 to discuss the final status summit over which Barak importuned Clinton, the Israeli leader acknowledged that he could “not see how a deal could be done on Jerusalem now… he did not see his public or theirs capable of compromise at this stage on Jerusalem.” At the same time, Barak was insistent that the summit would be predicated on “an end-of-conflict deal—with no more claims.” Ross objected: “But there was a logical inconsistency in [Barak’s] approach…How could he proclaim that all claims and grievances were [to be] resolved [by the final accord he sought to negotiate at a summit] when differences would all be riveted on Jerusalem?” Both before and during the summit, Barak was warned by Israeli security and intelligence officials that Arafat regarded himself as representing the entire Muslim world over the mosques on the Temple Mount/Haram.
If Barak was unwilling, or politically unable, to divide sovereignty in Jerusalem and over the holy sites in a way that would allow Arafat to save face before the Muslim world, one can join Ross in wondering why he insisted on an all-or-nothing, make-or-break summit, and failed to adequately explore possible alternatives to a final comprehensive agreement. To be sure, none of the leaders—American, Palestinian or Israeli—were interested at this juncture in another small-scale limited interim agreement. But a nonbelligerency accord resolving the issues of territory, settlements and Palestinian statehood, allowing Israel to erect a border fence on an agreed international line, might well have been doable. Such an agreement would have left the question of final sovereignty over the Jerusalem holy sites and the resolution of the refugee problem in abeyance for future state-to-state talks. For Barak, who had opposed Oslo from the outset and eschewed most interim steps and confidence-building measures, such an arrangement was out of the question. But it clearly would have been far more advantageous to Israel from a political and security vantage point than a go-for-broke summit with no fallback options, where the only alternative, as Barak repeatedly emphasized, was a violent conflagration—in his own ironic metaphor, “collision with the iceberg.” Barak’s navigation of the Israeli ship of state—his Titanic—left much to be desired.
A solution on Jerusalem’s holy sites and the refugees may be more likely with the more pragmatic negotiators who surround Arafat, the next generation of Palestinian leadership, many of whom Clinton, Ross and Sher agree would have braved the necessary compromises on the level of symbolism and principle, allowing for a mutually acceptable practical solution. This logic militates against Barak’s push for a binary black-or-white peace-or-war outcome, his quest to reveal Arafat as either “the Palestinian Sadat” or a terrorist still bent on Israel’s destruction. Barak, Arafat and Clinton, it can only be said, all egregiously misread the strategic tea leaves.
Barak had been publicly warned by various prominent figures in the Israeli political and security establishment, including cabinet ministers Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Yossi Sarid and MI chief General Amos Malka, that Arafat could not sign a final status peace agreement with him based on his proposals. In his The Jerusalem Problem: The Struggle for Permanent Status, Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist and advisor to Israel’s Foreign Minister during the negotiations, elaborates: These ministers presciently believed that “it would be best to make do with an interim agreement or with an arrangement that excluded Jerusalem…[They] claimed that the Jerusalem question would be difficult to solve and that discussing it would bring the entire track to a dead end.” Moreover, “a careful reading of Gilad Sher’s book, notes Klein, “reveals that its author tried, throughout the negotiations, to promote ideas that had one common denominator: the achievement of something less than a permanent settlement. He sought to postpone the permanent settlement as a whole…and to put off certain issues in the permanent settlement, such as Jerusalem and the refugee problem, or to set aside agreeing on parts of these last two issues.”
In The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Agreement, 1996-2004, Barak’s Justice Minister Yossi Beilin describes his efforts to persuade the Israeli prime minister to develop a fallback option in the event that a final agreement proved elusive. Barak is said to have approved of this tack for a time, but clearly abandoned it—unwisely—as he orchestrated the end-game for the Camp David summit. On July 8, 2000, Beilin handed Barak a detailed proposal for just such an “alternative to a framework agreement, in case it turned out that the preferred agreement could not be concluded.” Under the partial agreement suggested by Beilin, both sides would commit to some general principles for the permanent agreement, but
"in the meantime, the third [Israeli] withdrawal [from the West Bank] would be carried out; and on January 1, 2001, Israel would recognize the Palestinian state on all the territories (comprising Area A and B) then in Palestinian hands [representing 42% of the West Bank]; from that point the negotiations would continue between the two states. A multinational force would supervise the border crossings and operate alongside the IDF, which would remain in Area C, still under Israeli control. The Palestinian side would commit to combat terror and violence, and the Israeli side would commit to freezing settlements, in accord with Rabin’s negotiations with Arafat…[C]ommittees would be established to deal with everyday matters related to the city of Jerusalem, while negotiations on the city’s future would begin as soon as the interim agreement was signed, to determine a special status for the Holy Basin—the half-square-mile area that contains sites holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians."
After reviewing Beilin’s proposal, Barak summarily rejected it later the same day, insisting that the Palestinians will “prefer it to the painful permanent settlement”—a settlement which Barak, had he listened to Israeli military intelligence and to his more realistic Cabinet ministers, would have known was not within reach at this stage. Concludes Beilin: “Ehud Barak was about to swing on the trapeze without a safety net, because I was still holding his safety net I my hand.”
Nor was it the case that only Israeli politicians sought to avoid a risky lunge for the brass ring of a final agreement. “There were also Palestinian political leaders who called for deferring the subject of Jerusalem,” notes Klein, including PLO Executive Committee Secretary Abu Mazen, who “estimated that the gaps between the two sides were unbridgeable.” He believed the Palestinians should sign an interim agreement on Jerusalem, and until concluding a permanent status accord over the city, he felt that the Palestinians should work to strengthen their position in the eastern Arab sector. Klein notes that “At the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, members of the Palestinian leadership demanded that Israel prepare an alternate program in case a permanent settlement, or a framework agreement for the permanent settlement, was not achieved.”
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Ben Kaspit reports that Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti was among those Palestinians who urged Israeli leaders to pursue a near-term interim agreement to stave off a collapse of the peace process into bloodshed:
In the night between 14 and 15 May 2000, on the eve of Nakba Day and before Camp David, Yossi Beilin sat at Larom Hotel in Jerusalem. Opposite him were Marwan Barghouti, Fares Kadoura and Mamduh Nofel, the three most prominent leaders of Fateh and the Tanzim in the West Bank. “If we don’t reach an agreement by September,” said Barghouti and his colleagues to Beilin, “horrible violence will break out. The situation is like a pressure cooker. You are making a laughing stock out of us. We represent the people in the street, the Tanzim, the released prisoners. We promised our people results, and we brought them nothing. The Hamas is rearing its head. Arafat has become the mayor of Gaza. Israel got everything: international recognition, a growing economy, a financial boom, an opening to the Arab world. We got a visa to Washington for Arafat and that’s it. You keep on expropriating and settling. Only an agreement, even a partial one, can save the situation.”
Beilin adds further to this account, recounting Barghouti’s skepticism over Arafat’s ability to conclude a permanent agreement with Barak by September 2000: “In Netanyahu’s time,” complained Barghouti, “we could say: this rightist government opposes peace and when a Labor government comes to power it will resume the process. Today we have nothing to say to the street. Everything is stuck, and it is because of your government…There is no framework agreement, no third phase [of the redeployment/withdrawals from the West Bank]…But if prisoners are released, the settlements frozen, and the interim agreement implemented, the situation on the ground could calm down even if there were no permanent settlement. If that does not happen, and a permanent agreement is not signed, the disappointment and the frustration are liable to lead to an explosion.” Mamduh Nofel added that “the Palestinian people are disappointed with Barak because…he does not keep agreements, is continuing with the settlements, and is not releasing [Palestinian] prisoners. The fact that he has not transferred Abu Dis, Azariyeh, and Anata [three Palestinian villages] is seen as an admission of his inability to carry out what he has promised. ‘Rabin was a man of honor. He signed and he did. Arafat trusted him. He does not trust Barak to the same extent.’”
The Palestinian Resort to Violence
The “history” of the Palestinian resort to violence, as told by many Jews today, equally illustrates the adage, “truth is the first casualty in war.” The popular slogan that Israel tried land for peace and got only war and terror is doubly misleading. After failing to stem their violent assaults in Oslo’s early years, Arafat’s forces effectively reined in the terrorists and cooperated on security with Israel for the three years leading up to Camp David, according to Israel’s own security officials at the time. In fact, Israel suffered only a single casualty from Palestinian terrorism from October 1997 until October 2000, when suicide attacks resumed in the months following Camp David’s collapse and the outbreak of the intifada.
But Israel never stood up to the radical Jewish Greater Land of Israel movement, continuing to build settlements at breakneck speed and to strengthen its hold in areas where millions of Palestinians live and seek an independent state. And far from having granted Palestinians real mastery over their own lives, Israel allowed them full control over only 18% of the West Bank during the Oslo decade. It gave little land even in Oslo’s heyday, and got much peace and security from 1997 until late 2000 when the final status peace talks crashed, due not only to Arafat’s intransigence and complicity in violence but to Barak’s own flawed negotiating strategy.
Col. Arieli explains that the Palestinians “did not give up terrorism in order to get a redeployment here and a redeployment there. The cessation of terror was conditioned from the start on achieving their [national] goal. Therefore, when they understood that Israel did not intend to bring them there [through negotiations], they returned to terrorism. The members of the Peace Administration knew from the start that there was no chance of Yasser Arafat becoming the Israeli security services' subcontractor in exchange for anything less than a state in the 1967 borders, with border adjustments and exchanges of territory.”
Palestinians turned to violence not in response to Israel’s “generous” offers at Camp David, as the conventional trope has it. Rather, as the chasm deepened between the high hopes kindled by Oslo for occupation’s end and the dismal reality of the 90’s, Palestinian faith in a negotiated solution gradually waned. At the same time, support for violence as a means of coercing Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza rose steadily, peaking after the failure of the long overdue final status talks at Camp David, according to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.
Dennis Ross reports in his memoir that in the year before Camp David, then IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Shaul Mofaz (now Sharon’s Defense Minister) and Admiral Ami Ayalon, head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, implored him to drop US efforts to reach a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty and “put all our emphasis on reaching an agreement with the Palestinians—and to convince Barak of the importance of this.” “Both feared,” Ross writes, “that at some point Palestinian frustrations, especially on the street over corruption in the Palestinian Authority and the failure of Oslo to end the Israeli occupation, would boil over and there would be an eruption of violence. Once that happened, support within the Israeli public for a deal with the Palestinians would disappear.”
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