The counterattack came—or so it seemed—out of the blue.
Almost a year earlier, negotiations at Camp David between the then prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Yasir Arafat, with the active participation of the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, had broken down. Soon thereafter, the Palestinians launched what became known as Intifada II. This was a low-level war that resulted in many more Palestinian than Israeli casualties. Yet the Palestinians were content to sustain these losses, and the younger the better, since they exposed the alleged inhumanity of the Israelis and garnered sympathy for the Palestinians in the media and in the “international community.”
In a striking case of religion’s being conscripted into the service of political ends, traditional Islamic conceptions of martyrdom were invoked to recruit suicide bombers in their teens and early twenties; to justify the tactic of placing small children in the direct line of Israeli return fire; and to ensure the approval even of the parents of the young Palestinian corpses thus created. Instead of mourning, the mothers rejoiced and the fathers took pride; instead of weeping and wailing, they emitted cries of jubilation; instead of being consoled by friends and relatives, they were congratulated; and instead of burying their children in anguish and grief, they celebrated the funerals as “weddings,” with candies being distributed and sweet coffee drunk rather than the bitter coffee of ordinary funerals.
Husam Badran, a columnist in Al-Ayyam, a daily paper associated with the Palestinian Authority, explicated what seemed difficult to understand from a Western perspective:
Martyrdom . . . is a loss through distinction. The shahid‘s [martyr’s] mother finds in this distinction . . . some sort of compensation for her pain and loss . . . because she believes the martyr is one of the birds of heaven if he dies as a child, or one of the guards of heaven if he died as a youth. Therefore, crying is considered shameful for the mother and family of a shahid. She is required to accompany him with cries of jubilation to his grave, as if he is a groom who did not complete . . . his marriage.1
It was in this spirit, and out of such beliefs, that a young man named Sa’id al-Hotari blew himself up one Saturday night amid a crowd of Israeli teenagers waiting to get into a disco in Tel Aviv, killing more than twenty of them and seriously injuring another hundred. “There is nothing greater than being martyred for the sake of Allah, on the land of Palestine,” he exulted in the testament he left behind. “Cry in joy, my mother, hand out candy, my father and brothers, for your son awaits a wedding with the 72 black-eyed [virgins] in heaven.” His father promptly obliged: “I was extremely happy when I heard that my son is the one who did this operation. I hope I have many sons to carry out the same act.”
This sentiment was echoed in almost the same words by the mother of the suicide bomber who subsequently blew himself up in a restaurant near Haifa. She professed gratitude for the “greatest gift” a son could give a mother, and she prayed that her other sons might follow the wonderful example he had set.
In the midst of this wave of suicide bombings—which also came to include the blowing up of a pizzeria in Jerusalem that took fifteen Israeli lives—there were a few protests from Muslims in London, and even in Saudi Arabia, arguing that their religion did not sanction such actions. But most Muslim clerics strongly endorsed the view that suicide bombings were a form of religious martyrdom and encouraged more of them. In fact, Sheikh ‘Ikrimeh Sabri, the highest-ranking cleric in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, preached a sermon to just this effect at the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem only a week before the massacre at the Tel Aviv disco. Then, only a week after this bloody incident (and a few days after Arafat had agreed—yet again!—to a cease-fire), Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi, in a sermon in Gaza that was broadcast on PA television, showered “blessings on whoever put a belt of explosives on his body or on his sons and plunged into the midst of the Jews.”
Not surprisingly, given all this, 76 percent of the respondents to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion supported suicide bombings against the Israelis. And the same sentiment was widely shared throughout the Arab world. One writer in an Egyptian paper even volunteered to sign up for a suicide mission himself. Becoming a martyr, he said, would fulfill his own highest spiritual aspirations. But in addition, suicide bombing was a most effective method for defeating the “racist Jewish entity,” whose people he was “not ashamed to speak about driving . . . into the sea, to hell, or to the trash heap they deserve.” He continued:
Let us do some mathematical calculations: 250 Palestinians have signed up for martyrdom operations, and it is not impossible to raise this number to 1,000 throughout the Arab world. . . . The average harvest of each act of martyrdom is ten dead and 50 wounded. . . . [The Israelis] cannot bear this. There is also the added advantage . . . of negative Jewish emigration, which, as a consequence of the 1,000 martyrdom operations will come to at least 1,000,000 Jews, followed by the return of every Jew to the place from whence he came.
Another Egyptian journalist, in the leading government newspaper Al-Ahram, could not, he said, “hide my happiness” at the blowing up of the pizzeria in Jerusalem. “At first,” he continued,
I thought that this was my own private feeling, but shortly after the news was broadcast, I discovered that many share it with me. The telephone in my house did not stop ringing until after midnight. Most of the people I spoke with wanted to make sure that the news got to me. On the second day, I was informed that the masses in Lebanon, Jordan, and Gaza went out to the streets in cries of joy and shots in the air, and that some gave out candies to passers-by on the street, accompanied by the women’s howls of joy whose echo remained in the sky all night long.
It may not have been surprising that suicide bombing was popular among Palestinians and their Arab brothers in other countries. And yet one might have expected greater opposition even from them to what one lonely Muslim protester called the tactic of encouraging “children who are less than the age of maturity, . . . unarmed and undefended, to be targets for the Jews who are armed from head to toe so that they can hit these children as they wish.”
But hardly anyone agreed with this dissenter, a London-based journalist named Huda al-Husseini, when he asked:
What kind of independence is built on the blood of children while the leaders are safe and so are their children and grandchildren? . . . Isn’t it sad that a Palestinian mother who loses a child looks around and cannot find nearby other mothers crying because every mother waits her turn to receive the corpse of a child? They take the children from their mothers and at the same time they strip the mother of any sympathy.
In the Arab world, words of this kind, besides being pathetically few and far between, fell on deaf ears. They were drowned out by sermon after sermon, speech after speech, and article after article in the Arabic-language press that went on praising the sacrifice of Palestinian children to the national cause. “We must educate our children on the love of jihad [holy war],” proclaimed an official of the putatively moderate PA during the broadcast on television of a sermon from Gaza. In line with this imperative, a gathering was held in a high school run by the PA to commemorate two “martyrs” who had been members of the radically fundamentalist Hamas. Children carrying weapons were brought in to participate, and future suicide bombers, dressed all in white with bandanas on their heads, were paraded before the youthful assemblage.
Nor was this all. In summer camps—four of them—children ranging from eight to twelve years old were, and are, being trained to become suicide bombers. And on a PA-sponsored children’s TV program (whose general approach was likened by the Middle East specialist Daniel Pipes to Sesame Street), a young boy sang: “When I wander into Jerusalem, I will become a suicide,” while a popular ditty featured on one of these programs went: “How pleasant is the smell of martyrs, how pleasant the smell of land, the land enriched by the blood, the blood pouring out of a fresh body.”
To the extent that the objective of child sacrifice was to blacken Israel in the eyes of the world, it worked, especially as many of these incidents were carefully staged before television cameras. Suicide bombings, however, proved less effective in this respect, even in the incorrigibly pro-Palestinian chancelleries of Europe. And both tactics did great damage to the Israeli “peace movement” at home, and to its backers within the American Jewish community.
Thus, a spate of disillusioned statements poured forth from longtime champions of the negotiating process that had been born at Oslo in 1993 and was (apparently) killed at Camp David eight years later—people who had defended and apologized for Arafat’s every violation of the Oslo agreement and its progeny. Having hailed Arafat as “a partner for peace,” they were now heartbroken to discover that he was no such thing. At Camp David, Barak had made more far-reaching concessions than had been thought possible even by extreme doves: a plan that would have resulted in a Palestinian state with a part of Jerusalem as its capital, and that included provisions for the Palestinian refugees. Yet Arafat had not only walked away from all this, but had ordered, or acquiesced in, the renewal of the intifada.
What made it even worse was that rifles supplied to Arafat’s “police” by the Israelis themselves—under the theory that they would be used to control mob uprisings in the territories ruled by the PA—were now turned in full force against the Jews. True, the same thing had happened before, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s time as prime minister of Israel. But now, supplementing these light weapons (themselves already swollen in number far beyond what Oslo permitted) were heavier ones like mortars that, in a more egregious violation of Oslo, had been steadily smuggled into the hands of the Palestinians from and through neighboring Arab countries. This new arsenal was deployed to bombard a Jewish neighborhood that was within its range.
The inescapable conclusion reached by many (most?) Israelis was that Camp David and its violent aftermath exposed the fraudulence of Arafat’s expressed desire for coexistence between Israel and a new Palestinian state. He had no intention of making peace with Israel, and never had. What he wanted was no different from what his supposed rivals or enemies among the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah were after: to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Entering into the “peace process” had been nothing more than a change of tactics in the overall strategy of destroying Israel.
Not that every Israeli, let alone every member of the Israeli peace camp, went along with this new analysis. Some (like Israel’s leading novelist, Amos Oz) accepted only parts of it, and only through clenched teeth. Others clutched desperately to their olive branches, insisting that a return to negotiations with Arafat was both possible and desirable.
The most prominent spokesman for this last, intransigent stand was Shimon Peres, who had been one of the fathers of the Oslo accords. Yet for all the general disillusionment with the policy he more than anyone had done to foist upon Israel, Peres was neither discredited nor hurled into outer political darkness. On the contrary: when Intifada II resulted in a landslide electoral victory for Likud’s Ariel Sharon over Labor’s Barak, the new prime minister formed a national-unity government in which Peres became foreign minister.
Other members of Peres’s faction refused to join the government of the “superhawk” Sharon, and criticized their own leader for doing so. Among these was Yossi Beilin. This character, who had once been dismissed by Yitzhak Rabin as “Peres’s poodle,” now began sniping at his former master’s heels while furiously maneuvering to resurrect Oslo. But Peres, nothing daunted and not to be outdone by his former pet, never stopped reaching out to Arafat, with whom (along with Rabin) he had shared a Nobel Peace Prize for the glorious achievement of the Oslo accords.
Something similar was going on at the same time among the American diplomats who had from their end been pushing Oslo with all their might. No matter that Bill Clinton himself blamed Arafat for the breakdown at Camp David—and also for the failure of the secret negotiations that were held in subsequent months. For their part, the State Department operators proved once again that being a diplomat, like being in love, means never having to say you’re sorry, especially when you have mastered the requisite art of talking out of both sides of your mouth at the same time.
For example, when Dennis B. Ross, who had been perhaps more centrally involved in this issue for the past twelve years than any other American diplomat, finally left office after the election of George W. Bush, he blandly told an interviewer that “Arafat can’t really do a permanent deal.” Expanding on this point in a lecture, he added: “Chairman Arafat could not accept Camp David. It was too hard for him to make this decision because when the conflict ends, the cause that defines Arafat also ends.” But we now discovered that Ross had been well aware of this long before Camp David, since, as he himself went on to comment, first in another interview about Arafat’s behavior in the years after Oslo, and then in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post: “You cannot be promoting incitement to violence, and say you’re committed to peace. The two are contradictory.”
Why then had Ross not gotten the American government to do something about Arafat’s violations of the Oslo agreements? Because, he replied,
the prudential issues of compliance were neglected and politicized by the Americans in favor of keeping talks afloat. . . . Every time there was a behavior, or an incident, or an event that was inconsistent with what the process was supposed to be about, the impulse was to rationalize it, finesse it, find a way around it, and not allow it to break the process.
Anything, that is, to keep the process going, even though Arafat was daily exposing its “promise” (Ross’s own word) as a sham, and even though Ross himself understood, as he could acknowledge now that he had become a private citizen, that “Arafat has spent a lifetime giving commitments he assumes he will never have to fulfill.”
Martin Indyk, Ross’s protégé and Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, was as bad, or perhaps a touch worse; admittedly, it is a close call. Ross was now willing to concede these points about Arafat (though without taking any of the onus on his own heavily guilty shoulders for having consciously and deliberately pumped up what he had recognized even then as a fraudulent process). Remaining “absolutely convinced there will be an agreement at a certain point,” and pledging to do everything in his power to bring it about, he at least also held out small hope for a resumption of negotiations in the foreseeable future.
Indyk, by contrast, was incapable of even this much candor or qualification. “Just because the Middle East peace process failed,” he asserted after leaving office, “does not mean it should be abandoned.” Nor had he lost faith in Arafat. According to the Jerusalem Post, in his farewell address as ambassador he still maintained that “ ‘Israel’s only course is to pursue negotiations with Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat, who has the power to stop the violence. Arafat is Israel’s best hope for peace since the alternative is Hamas or Hezbollah.’ ” (Later he would reiterate this sentiment in an op-ed piece in the New York Times)
But if Arafat, by Indyk’s own account, had never given up violence as a tool, and if (contrary to the mantra of the PLO chairman’s even more die-hard apologists) he was even now in control of it, in what sense could he be seen as a better alternative to Hamas or Hezbollah—or as an alternative at all?
On this issue of alternatives, it must be said that Indyk was no worse than Ross, who also warned that if Arafat were forced out by Israel, this would “bring in a more extreme leader.” But again, if Arafat, in Ross’s own analysis, was incapable of making peace with Israel, why were the Israelis better off with him than without him? Ross’s mysterious answer was that Arafat had “legitimized” peacemaking, and that so long as he remained on the scene, there was a chance that it could be resumed.
But to what end? After all, if—as just about everyone from Clinton on down by then agreed—Barak had made the most generous offer any Israeli leader could be expected to make and Arafat had indignantly turned his back on it, what possible point was there in a new round of negotiations? What more was there for Israel to give that Arafat would take?
At this juncture, the intransigents in the “peace camp” suddenly began harping on the old chestnut of the Israeli settlements in the “occupied” territories as the great deal-breaker.2 The settlements? Why bring up the settlements, when, in storming out of Camp David, neither Arafat nor anyone else in the Palestinian delegation had singled them out as the only issue, or even the main one?
Naturally, the Palestinians were happy to be handed this gift of an excuse. For months and months they had failed to explain why they had rejected Barak’s proposals, and what their own counterproposals might be. But thanks to Beilin and his fellow intransigents both in Israel and elsewhere, the Palestinians now had something resembling a leg to stand on in blaming Israel once again for their own refusal to accept a Jewish state on any part of “their” land.
Still, the question was left hanging in the air: what could a new round of negotiations accomplish when Barak’s offer had been so rudely repudiated?
Sensing that they were losing more ground with every passing day that this question went unresolved, the Palestinians and their apologists both in Israel and in Washington launched a campaign to destroy the “myth” that blame attached exclusively to Arafat. This interpretation—to repeat, Bill Clinton’s own—of why Camp David had failed was now loftily dismissed as simplistic; and, in the intellectually seductive name of greater complexity and nuance, “errors” were charitably redistributed, with both Barak himself and Clinton being awarded a share equal to, if not greater than, Arafat’s.
It was only now also revealed that there had been secret follow-up negotiations after Camp David, which—the claim went—had come within a hair’s breadth of success, and would have resulted in an agreement if only a little more time had been available. Alas, the elections both in the United States and Israel imposed too stringent a deadline. Another day, another hour, another minute, another second, and there surely would have been a peaceful end to the war against the very existence of a Jewish state that the Arab world had been fighting for close to a century.
The shot most heard ’round the world in this campaign was fired in the form of a very long article by Deborah Sontag, who was leaving her post as the New York Times correspondent in Israel. Sontag’s bombshell, prominently featured on the paper’s front page, was preceded by an op-ed piece in the Times by Robert Malley, a former staffer of the National Security Council who had been a member of the American negotiating team at Camp David. Some weeks later, Malley, now writing in collaboration with a Palestinian, Hussein Agha, produced a much longer version of his account that was published in the New York Review of Books under the title “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors.”
Around the same time that Sontag and Malley were launching their counteroffensive in America, a team of Palestinians, fielding questions posed in meetings with sympathetic but troubled Israeli intellectuals, presented many of the same arguments that showed up in Sontag and Malley. Based on these meetings, a document was put together in Hebrew and English under the PLO logo: it was published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a paper that had always enthusiastically supported the “peace process.”
Though the exact chronology is difficult to pin down here, my own suspicion is that this document—or an earlier oral version of it—is what served as the stimulus of Sontag’s article. But there is no need to engage in guessing games concerning the relation between Malley and Sontag, since she cited a speech by him as a source, and also his oped piece in the Times. And Malley may have inspired the Palestinians themselves with a talk he gave as early as March 2001 to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine in Washington. There, to a pro-Palestinian audience, he sketched out what had “really” happened at Camp David before he, too, took to the public prints with the same diagnosis.
Be all that as it may, the three items overlapped to a considerable extent, as they also did with statements and articles by Beilin. But it is still worth examining each in turn; chronology being less important than impact, I will begin with Sontag, and then go on to Malley and the PLO paper.
Before starting, however, I want to stress that the minutes both of the discussions at Camp David and of later meetings held in various locales are still unpublished. Consequently, we have no way of checking the accuracy of the detailed allegations of which the revisionist version is composed. Nor did Sontag herself help. While she claimed to have interviewed “key Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, as well as several American and European diplomats keenly involved in the peace talks of the Clinton-Barak era,” her only quotations came from disappointed supporters of Oslo.
I will skip over the many Palestinians she cited, since it is—or should be—self-evident that they have a political interest in absolving Arafat of (in Sontag’s words) “sole responsibility for the breakdown of the peace effort.” I will also omit the “European diplomats” on whom she relied for corroboration: except for a clearly biased UN special envoy, she never named them. But here is the complete list of Israelis and Americans she did quote by name, in the order in which they appeared in her article: Shlomo Ben-Ami, Gilad Sher, Martin Indyk, Avraham Burg, Dennis B. Ross, Yossi Beilin, Robert Malley,3 and Joseph Alpher.
Every last one of these was a longtime supporter of the “peace process.” To show that their ideas and hopes had not been discredited by Arafat at Camp David, they were all eager to explode what Sontag described as
a potent, simplistic narrative [that] has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David. . . . Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then “pushed the button” and chose the path of violence. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict [this “simplistic narrative” concludes] is insoluble, at least for the foreseeable future.
Meron Benvenisti, an old Israeli peace horse out to pasture, awoke from his dogmatic slumbers long enough to write a little article of his own commending Sontag’s much longer one as a model of “balanced” reporting. Yet this model of balanced reporting included not a single critic of the “peace process” to argue that there was nothing “simplistic” about the “myth” Sontag was intent on destroying, let alone to contend that this “myth” had been vindicated by Camp David, the eruption of Intifada II, and the clandestine negotiations that went on even during the resumption of violence.
That Sontag and her sources were not disposing of a myth but creating one in order to obfuscate and evade the truth was nowhere more conspicuous than in her resurrection of the old charge that Intifada II had been provoked by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount:
On the heels of very intricate grappling at Camp David over the future status of the Old City’s holy sites, Mr. Sharon’s heavily guarded visit to the plaza outside al-Aqsa mosque to demonstrate Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount set off angry Palestinian demonstrations. The Israelis used lethal force to put them down. The cycle of violence started, escalated, and mutated.
Not a word here about the fact that Sharon had cleared his visit with the Palestinian security chief in the area, and had been assured that it would trigger no violence. Nor was there any reference by Sontag to the speech of the PA communications minister, Imad al-Faluji, in which he admitted that the Sharon visit had merely been a pretext for an action already planned in advance:
Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the al-Aqsa mosque is wrong. . . . This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations.4
But to return to Camp David—where, according to Sontag, Barak had not offered Arafat “the moon.” What he had offered, she averred, was only (!) a little more than 90 percent of the territories captured by Israel in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state with a part of Jerusalem as its capital.
Now, suppose for the sake of argument that 90 or 91 percent did not constitute the “moon,” and that the Palestinians were right to consider it insufficient. Why then would they have said no again in the later, secret negotiations when, as Sontag herself informed us, Barak upped the offer to 97 (or, in some reports, 95) percent? Because, she wrote,
The plan was too vague. . . . In the midst once more of a violent relationship with Israel, [the Palestinians] were not emotionally poised to abide by the political timetables of others and to rush into a fuzzy deal.
This note was in keeping with the psychobabble that ran through Sontag’s whole article. In the assessment of the UN envoy, Camp David had been “a failure of psychology.” Others lamented through her that the “chemistry” had been bad. Furthermore, Barak had spent all his time at a dinner party talking to Chelsea Clinton sitting on his right instead of to Arafat on his left, thereby demonstrating his bad faith (and, it would appear, insulting Arafat to boot). So, too, “veteran Palestinian negotiators” had been “angered” when American officials tried “to nurture special relationships with two younger-generation Palestinian officials.” One of the most important of these negotiators, Abu Mazen, had been “so furious about the American tactics” that he pledged “to use the refugee issue to foil” Camp David “if such games continued.”
Feelings aside, Arafat told Sontag that the Palestinian state envisaged by Barak “would not be viable” because it would be divided into “cantons” (which was “worse than the Bantustans” that had once been designed for blacks by the defunct apartheid government of South Africa). Barak, however, later stated flatly in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that the deal he had put on the table at Camp David “included an independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state beside Israel” [emphasis added].
One of these two men is lying, and quite apart from the consideration that credibility has never exactly been Arafat’s strong point, the evidence in this instance overwhelmingly points to him as the culprit. This evidence, moreover, comes from leaders of the PLO itself.
First, we have the aforementioned Abu Mazen, speaking to Al-Ayyam:
I met with Barak one month prior to negotiations and told him . . . if you have illusions that the Palestinian side can make concessions on land, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, or on refugees, you are daydreaming. . . . We demand a return to the 1967 borders in full. . . . We cannot agree to settlements on our land. We want Israel to recognize its responsibility for the refugee problem and for the right of return. . . . Regarding Jerusalem, it is clear that East Jerusalem should return to us, and that West Jerusalem will be an open city.
Denying in diplomatic double-talk that such conditions would mean an end to Israel as a Jewish state, Abu Mazen simultaneously reiterated that “the issue is not 80 or 90 percent. Give me 100 percent of my borders.” He was willing to accede to the minor “border changes” the Israelis imagined they needed for security, but only if an equivalent amount of Israeli territory were added to the new Palestinian state. To such a swap, the Israelis had already agreed. Yet Abu Mazen asserted that the envisioned exchange would have left Israel with 5 percent more land that should have gone to the Palestinians than the compensatory amount of pre-1967 Israeli territory Barak had been prepared to cede. All by itself, this 5 percent, if 5 percent it really was, had been enough to eclipse the moon.5
And so it was with all the other issues brought up by Abu Mazen in the same interview, from the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees, to the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, to Jerusalem. No Israeli concession on any of them had been enough—no matter how unprecedented, or how far beyond it went from anything previously contemplated.
When lawyers who lose an argument shift their ground, they are said to be taking “another bite of the apple.” Abu Mazen takes so many bites of this apple that he gets down to the core, and then begins chewing on that. This was precisely how the Palestinian negotiators acted collectively at Camp David, as even Malley and Agha testified:
Appearing to act disparately and without a central purpose, each Palestinian negotiator gave preeminence to a particular issue, making virtually impossible the kinds of trade-offs that, inevitably, a compromise would entail. Ultimately, most chose to go through the motions rather than go for a deal.
The second Palestinian witness I wish to summon, Faisal al-Husseini, is even weightier. Just before he died of a heart attack this past June on a trip to Kuwait, al-Husseini, celebrated throughout the West as the leading Palestinian moderate (though his colleague Hanan Ashrawi, who speaks better English, appeared more often on American television), gave an interview to an Egyptian paper. Dispensing with Abu Mazen’s prudential pretenses, this great embodiment and exemplification of the “moderate” Palestinian position toward Israel characterized Oslo as a “Trojan horse.” It, “or any other agreement, is just a temporary procedure, or just a step toward something bigger,” namely,
the liberation of all historical Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea. . . . Palestine in its entirety is an Arab land, the land of the Arab nation, a land no one can sell or buy.
This, al-Husseini affirmed, was the answer he would give whether speaking as “a pan-Arab nationalist” or “as a man who belongs to the Islamic faith,” or “as an ordinary Palestinian, from the ‘inside’ or from the Diaspora.” Due to “international pressure,” the Palestinians were unfortunately “compelled temporarily to accept” less than everything as a shortterm tactic leading in “phased goals” to the ultimate strategic objective. But “our eyes must continue to focus on the higher goal . . . which is the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea” even “if this means that the conflict will last for another thousand years or for many generations.”
Such complete confirmation of what some critics of Oslo had all along been identifying as the true Palestinian goal—and from a man almost universally regarded as a supporter of coexistence with Israel—makes a morbid joke of the details piled up by Sontag, Malley, Beilin, and the PLO document to obfuscate what Camp David and its aftermath most emphatically did uncover.
In the Malley-Agha account, all three participants at Camp David—the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans—were guilty of mistakes. To most nondiplomats, I imagine, the mistakes attributed to the Israelis and the Americans would seem trivial, amounting to nothing more than matters of demeanor and negotiating tactics, as compared with the tortuous maneuvers engaged in by Arafat and his people to escape any sort of compromise.
Indeed, this is how it struck even some diplomats, including none other than Malley’s own superior on the American “peace team,” Dennis Ross. In a letter criticizing the Malley-Agha article, Ross would accuse them of equating “tactical mistakes with strategic errors.” For whereas “Both Barak and Clinton were prepared to do what was necessary to reach agreement,” one could not “say the same about Arafat. . . . The issue is, did Yasir Arafat respond at any point—not only at Camp David—to possibilities to end this conflict when they presented themselves?” Ross’s answer to his own question was: “Any objective appraisal would have to conclude that he did not.”
Yet suppose, again for the sake of argument, that there was (in Martin Indyk’s formulation) plenty of blame to go around. Suppose even that we were to swallow in its entirety the Malley-Agha story of what happened at Camp David—including even their deeply sympathetic portrait of why the Palestinians were so wary. What then would follow?
Why, nothing—nothing whatsoever. Malley and Agha themselves recognized (more clearly than Dennis Ross allowed) that Arafat went to Camp David not to make a deal but to avoid making one. This was why the Palestinians had no compromise proposals of their own that Clinton could bring to the Israelis as a basis for negotiation. As Malley and Agha put it:
[T]he Palestinians’ principal failing is that from the beginning of the Camp David summit onward they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own. In failing to do either, the Palestinians denied the U.S. the leverage it felt it needed to test Barak’s stated willingness to go the extra mile and thereby provoked the President’s anger.
And there was more:
When Abu Ala’a, a leading Palestinian negotiator, refused to work on a map to negotiate a possible solution, arguing that Israel first had to concede that any territorial agreement must be based on the line of June 4, 1967, the President burst out, “Don’t simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good. Give me something better!” When Abu Ala’a again balked, the President stormed out: “This is a fraud. It is not a summit. I won’t have the United States covering for negotiations in bad faith. Let’s quit.”
Clinton, however, did not quit. Five months later, on December 23, 2000, after many secret meetings between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and while violence raged, the President, with Barak behind him, sent a series of proposals to a session at Taba which, wrote Malley and Agha, “showed that the distance traveled since Camp David was indeed considerable, and almost all in the Palestinians’ direction.” To no avail. Arafat again found various pretexts for turning the new deal down. Apparently without quite realizing the implications of what they were saying, Malley and Agha explained why:
For all the talk about peace and reconciliation, most Palestinians were more resigned to the two-state solution than they were willing to embrace it; they were prepared to accept Israel’s existence, but not its moral legitimacy. . . . For the Palestinians, land was not given but given back.
Finally, there was the PLO document consisting of replies to questions posed by Israeli intellectuals. Having already dealt with most of the points covered in this document, I need not spend much time on it. But I do want to focus on the additional glimpse it gives us into the sophistical rationalizations, misrepresentations, and outright prevarications behind the revisionist effort to absolve Arafat of blame for the failure of Camp David.
Thus, to the first question, “Why did the Palestinians reject the Camp David Peace Proposal?,” the PLO response was that “Israel’s Camp David proposal presented a ‘repackaging’ of military occupation, not an end to military occupation.” To be sure, not even the PLO was brazen enough to deny that Barak’s scheme had envisaged a Palestinian state on over 90 percent of the territory under contention. But, protested the document,
[T]he issue is not one of percentages. . . . In a prison, for example, 95 percent of the prison compound is ostensibly for the prisoners—cells, cafeterias, gym and medical facilities—but the remaining 5 percent is all that is needed for the prison guards to maintain control over the prison population. Similarly, the Camp David proposal, while admittedly making Palestinian prison cells larger, failed to end Israeli control over the Palestinian population.
One would never guess from this, or from any of the other material produced by the revisionists, that 98 percent of the Palestinians—98 percent—had for some time now been living not under Israeli “occupation” but under the Palestinian Authority (a regime that might more appositely be conceived as a prison than Israeli rule—but let that pass).
And what about Jerusalem? Had not Barak been willing to accord sovereignty over part of it to the Palestinian state—in defiance of solemn pledges made a million times by Israeli prime ministers before him that Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of Israel,” would never again be divided? Yes, but the PLO was not impressed:
Israel was prepared to allow Palestinians sovereignty over isolated Palestinian neighborhoods in the heart of East Jerusalem . . . surrounded by illegal Jewish colonies. . . . In effect, such a proposal would create Palestinian ghettos in the heart of Jerusalem.
The upshot is that nothing Israel can do, short of committing suicide—or, better still, weakening itself to the point where it can be wiped out in a mighty holy war, a jihad, in which all the Arab armies will participate—can satisfy the Palestinians.
To a small minority of us, this has been obvious all along. And because it has been obvious, we were sharply critical from the beginning of the Oslo “peace process,” judging, from what the Palestinians were saying to one another in Arabic, that it would lead not to peace but to just such a war. We also interpreted the entry of the PLO under Arafat into this process as a change not of objectives but of tactics. Having unsuccessfully tried at least five times to destroy Israel by direct military assault, the Arab world—with the Palestinians acting as its spearhead—was now adopting the method of “phased goals” to which Faisal al-Husseini himself referred in his last interview.
Here, however, I for one must admit to having been mistaken about the precise design of the phased method. I thought the first step would be the use of terrorism combined with diplomatic pressure—a formula modeled on the North Vietnamese tactic of “fight and talk” that had been so effective against the Americans—to force Israel into withdrawing from as much of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza as possible. This would then be followed by the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would serve as a launching pad for further political and military operations (though the jihad could be triggered by any number of alternative scenarios).
But with the PLO having cast aside a wonderful opportunity to move into phase two, this analysis needs to be reconsidered. It now seems likely that Arafat’s objective is to provoke a large-scale regional war against Israel without first getting his state. Why? Probably because the price he has to pay for a state under present circumstances is to sign a treaty with Israel; and even if he were to do so with the intention of violating it (as he did with the Oslo agreements), he would formally have to renounce the strategic goal portrayed so vividly by Faisal al-Husseini and implicitly accept the Jewish state’s “moral legitimacy.” Launching Intifada II was thus Arafat’s way of setting up the conditions for the intervention of the armies and missiles of his Arab “brothers” now, rather than in the period after the Palestinian state comes into existence. (Conversely, Ariel Sharon’s policy of restraint in responding to attack—which reduced the ratio of Palestinian-Israeli casualties from ten-to-one to two-to-one—was in part calculated to frustrate this outcome.)
So far, no Arab armies have ridden to the rescue: but who can tell what might happen to bring them in?
Yet all the emphasis that has been put on Arafat and his maneuverings—including by me—is misplaced. Arafat himself is neither the problem—as some, including Ehud Barak, have now decided—nor the solution, as others, like Peres and Beilin in Israel, and Americans like Indyk and the New York Times editorial page, persist in maintaining even after Camp David and Intifada II.
In countering this determination to learn nothing from experience, the best source of wisdom is Fouad Ajami—an Arab-American who grew up as a Muslim in Lebanon and who has been almost the only Arab in the whole world courageous enough to speak the truth about the region from which he comes. Nearly five years ago, Ajami—in a piece that I have often quoted before but that bears quoting yet again—had this to say:
There has been no discernible change in the Arab attitudes toward Israel. . . . The great refusal persists . . . in that “Arab street” of ordinary men and women, among the intellectuals and the writers, and in the professional syndicates. The force of this refusal can be seen in the press of the governments and of the oppositionists, among the secularists and the Islamists alike, in countries that have concluded diplomatic agreements with Israel and those that haven’t.
Even in 1997, Ajami perceived that “the opposition to the peace remains fiercest in Egypt, the state that led the way to accommodation with Israel in the 1970’s.” And so it is today, which is why President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt reportedly put heavy pressure on Arafat not to conclude a deal at Camp David.
In Camp David and the outbreak of Intifada II, which was accompanied by demonstrations throughout the Arab world, Ajami saw evidence that in the years since 1997,
The circle of enmity surrounding Israel has not been breached—the young boys in the West Bank displayed their great refusal to come to terms with Israel’s statehood; so did the demonstrators in Arab lands, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, whose rulers had staked a claim to moderation. Diplomacy was shown to be a pretense and a veneer.
The following month, Ajami revisited the subject, this time to link what had been happening since Camp David with the entire history of the Palestinian national movement. Blowing away in a single sentence the smoke of the PLO’s propaganda offensive, he observed:
The whole of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank have been offered Arafat, with provisions for compensating territorial concessions in the south of Israel as a way of rounding out the borders of a Palestinian state.
But the Palestinians could not accept this offer because, as had happened on numerous occasions in the past,
In the play between a maximalist claim on Israel—a view that sees the very creation of Israel as a historical sin—and practical politics, the practical always yields in Palestinian thought and practice. It loses out to the wrath, to the persisting idea that the land as a whole, from the river to the sea, . . . as the Palestinians say, is still there to be claimed.
Then, in a third piece a few months ago, Ajami exposed the roots of Arafat’s behavior:
The simple, unadorned truth about Arafat is how true he has remained to that bitter, failed history. This intifada, this war, his handiwork, is thus an old, familiar story. To hunker down, to take the wrath of the crowd and of the young and focus it on Israel, to sharpen maximalist dreams, to give the crowd a sense of exemption from political realism. . . . This has been Arafat’s way.
What we can carry away from this incandescent analysis is that even if Arafat were to die tomorrow, nothing would change. As Faisal al-Husseini’s last interview proves beyond cavil, there are no “moderates” waiting in the wings of the PLO to succeed Arafat. Nor, if there are moderates in the wider Arab world, have they made themselves evident. Even the ambassador to London from Saudi Arabia—another supposedly moderate state—recently assured his fellow Arabs that they could win a two-front war against a demoralized Israel, a country that in his opinion has proved it no longer has the stomach for casualties. For such a two-front war, the Arabs need Egypt, but the ambassador waved off the idea that Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel would be an obstacle on that score, especially in light of the big military buildup on which Egypt has been embarked.
Not long after the ambassador’s article appeared, and as though to endorse it, Al-Akhbar, another official daily of the Egyptian government, ran an editorial containing these words:
In view of this international betrayal of the Palestinian problem, there is no escaping from an Islamic and Arab initiative for solidarity with the heroic intifada and from supporting it with deeds rather than words, in order to force Israel to end its occupation of the Arab lands, without the smallest [Arab] concession on any right whatsoever.
Some think that the leaders of the Arab states are wary of a full-scale war with Israel, and that their fiery support of the Palestinians is just a rhetorical bone thrown to popular sentiment. Perhaps. And yet talk has consequences, and by their constant threats of jihad, Mubarak and the others may be forcing themselves into a position where it will be impossible to resist popular pressure to make good on such threats.
Despite all this, both in Israel and in the United States, many politicians and publicists and pundits persuaded themselves that nothing essential had changed. These were the ones who had bought heavily into the notion that the Palestinians in particular and the Arabs in general had decided to make peace with a Jewish state in their midst, provided only that this state were willing to accept a Palestinian state alongside it. After an indecent interval, they were back in business at the same old stand, denying that Camp David had been, in Ajami’s image, “a flash of lightning” in which “the great truths of the region were laid bare.” Blinding themselves to these truths, they called over and over again for a resumption of negotiations, as though a further sweetening of the deal that had been rebuffed at Camp David would do the trick when an already sweeter one had already been spurned by the PLO at Taba.
As an opponent of the Oslo “peace process” from the start, I am willing to entertain the possibility that Israel had to go through the exercise in order to be persuaded once and for all of its futility. Most ordinary Israelis seem, at least for the moment, to have absorbed this lesson. (“To the Palestinians,” said a resident of Tel Aviv, “we are all settlers.”) The lesson has also been absorbed by some prominent intellectuals like Shlomo Avineri, who prepared the ground for Oslo (but recently, castigating Israeli leftists who have refused to admit the truth that has been revealed about the peace process, compared them to the Communists of the past who could not give up their faith in “the god that failed”), and a few formerly dovish commentators like Amnon Dankner who in an article in the Israeli daily Maariv now denounced Oslo as “one of the biggest scams in history.” But it is hard to find many, or even any, politicians who led the country into this fake process now facing up to the fact that they were wrong. Nor have their co-conspirators in the American government—Ross, Indyk, and company—or their champions in our own media been any more eager to acknowledge that the assumptions behind the policy they too supported with all their might were fallacious.6
There would be nothing dishonorable about such an admission, especially if couched in terms like these: “We had good reason to believe that a chance for peace had finally materialized, and we would have been irresponsible not to take it. Now, to our sorrow, we have learned that we were chasing a mirage.” What is dishonorable, however, is the refusal to let go of the illusions behind the “peace process,” to keep chasing the mirage, and to fan the embers of hope that still smolder in the hearts of a war-weary Israeli populace.
Yossi Beilin—who, among the other absurdities to which he has given voice, regards the Israeli concern over secure borders as “childish”—is probably the worst offender in this regard, with Yossi Sarid, the leader of the left-wing party Meretz, running him a close second. But Shimon Peres, who still enjoys power as foreign minister of Israel, deserves a higher slot on the roll of dishonor than his former “poodle” or than Sarid. Shocking though the analogy may seem, I would even go so far as to compare Peres with Neville Chamberlain; and what may seem even more shocking, I would further contend that the comparison puts the latter in a better light.
As everyone knows, Chamberlain, when he was prime minister of England in the late 1930’s, adopted a policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany. Similarly, Peres, as foreign minister under Yitzhak Rabin, led the way to the adoption of a similar policy by Israel toward the PLO. One may stipulate that both Chamberlain and Peres acted in good faith, out of the conviction that theirs was the only road to peace. But there the similarity ends.
When war broke out, Chamberlain was disgraced and has remained notorious to this day. But that was not the end of the story, as John Lukacs has reminded us in his recent book, Five Days in London: May 1940. When Winston Churchill succeeded him as prime minister, Chamberlain (partly for internal political reasons) was kept in the war cabinet. Realizing at last that he had misjudged Hitler’s intentions, and that Churchill had been right, he now tried to make amends by becoming one of the staunchest and most loyal supporters of the new prime minister’s determination to prosecute the war with full vigor. Not so, however, the foreign minister Halifax, who (writes Lukacs) “had come to believe that, for the sake of England’s survival, the attempt to inquire about peace terms should not be avoided, and that here Churchill . . . ought to be stopped in his tracks.”
Rather than play the admirable part of Chamberlain in Churchill’s government (though, alas, Sharon is no Churchill), Peres opted for the disgraceful role of Halifax, even to the extent of openly boasting that he was keeping Sharon from plunging the Middle East into a large-scale war. Day and night he went hither and yon begging Arafat and /or his henchmen to declare yet another farcical “cease-fire” that would precede yet another farcical series of “peace” negotiations.7
Seen through the lens of fantasies impervious by now to any and all realities, such meetings made perfect sense to Peres. Summing up an extensive interview with him, the Jerusalem Post reported:
Despite an Oslo process that has gone belly-up, nine months of terror and violence, and growing calls inside Israel to look for an alternative to . . . Arafat, . . . Peres said yesterday he feels the Palestinian leader can regain the trust of the Israeli public. . . . As to those who say that Arafat defines himself by the struggle against Israel and is therefore constitutionally unable to end it . . . , Peres says: “How do they know what is really happening in the heart of a leader?”
How? By what he does, Mr. Foreign Minister, and by what he does not do.
If we can credit a number of articles that have recently been published, despair is settling over Israel. We can’t make war, Israelis say, and we can’t make peace. Many, both on the Left and the Right, now talk of “separation”: that is, a unilateral declaration by Israel of its own boundaries, inside which it would seal itself off with fences and walls from the Palestinians outside. Yet even if this could work, there would still be close to a million Palestinians, citizens of Israel, inside. Concentrated in the Galilee, they could—to evoke another analogy with the 1930’s in Europe—easily become a kind of Sudetenland where the people were citizens of the Czech Republic but were mainly ethnic Germans sympathetic to Hitler.
Indeed, some Israeli Arabs, for the first time since the establishment of the Jewish state, have been demanding recognition as a “national minority.” Yosef Goell, in a piece in the Jerusalem Post, has clarified the significance of this development:
To some of us, the difference between an “ethnic” and a “national” minority may sound like a piece of semantic quibbling. It is not. “National” entails demands for a far-reaching grant of territorial and political autonomy, which in most cases leads to a violent irredentist campaign for total separation. Granting such a demand would mean turning Israel into the blood-drenched equivalent of Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Macedonia.
Is there then no glimmer of light at the end of this dark and gloomy tunnel? I would be less than honest if I suggested that I could see any. As matters stand for the foreseeable future, Israel’s only realistic choice is to hold tight, to keep its powder dry, to refine the anti-terrorist techniques it has already developed, to ensure the credibility of its military power as a deterrent against larger-scale attack, and to use that power if and when the Arabs force it to.
But there is a future beyond the foreseeable one; and in that future things may change. The regnant cliché is that the Arabs and the Jews have been fighting each other for hundreds of years, but in truth the Arab war against Israel is at most a century old. When we recall that it took more than three centuries before war between France and Germany became unthinkable, we realize that the Arab struggle, first against the establishment of a Jewish state and then against its continued existence, is still, relatively speaking, in an early stage.
This means that the day may yet come when the Arab world will make its own peace with the existence of a Jewish state; and on that day, making peace with Israel will be as easy as it is now impossible. It is a day that may even come sooner than people like me expect, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union did. But deluding oneself into thinking that it has already come—which is what the architects of Oslo did—can do Israel no good. As for the revisionist effort to persuade the world that the delusion was no delusion, it stems either from intellectual dishonesty or from criminal stupidity that can only wreak further harm.
I have not put much stress here on American policy because ever since Peres and Rabin, by embracing Oslo, went further than any administration in Washington (even the one headed by the elder George Bush) had dared to demand, Jerusalem has called most of the shots rather than being pushed by the United States. Certainly, the fear of displeasing Washington (and hence losing American help of various kinds) has exerted a pressure of its own on Israeli leaders, including Sharon. But except when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister and tried to slow the Oslo process a bit, the Israelis have been the engine pulling the Americans forward, and not the other way around.
Now the question is whether all this will change. George W. Bush entered the White House with a wise disinclination to follow Bill Clinton’s example of stationing himself between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But for this he was roundly criticized both at home and abroad—the French foreign minister, as quoted by the Jerusalem Post, actually compared “the Bush administration’s handling of the situation to Pontius Pilate’s ordering the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” The domestic pressures on the President contained nothing remotely so bizarre or incongruous or downright demented as this demonstration of what has become of the “lucidity” for which the French were once famous. Yet being banged on every day was understandably causing the President to waver, with his original reluctance in danger of losing out to the sporadically manifested impulse of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to become more actively “engaged.”
Such “engagement”—either by the United States alone or in conjunction with international “observers” or “monitors”—was only a euphemism for tying Israel’s hands behind its back, while allowing terrorism to go on its grisly way, undeterred by anything but unctuous words of disapproval. Why else would Mubarak, and Arafat himself, have vociferously clamored for more active American and /or international involvement?
Bush appeared to have an intuitive grasp of this, but not full clarity. On the one hand, he continued reiterating that there could be no progress toward peace, and no role for Washington, until Arafat “put 100-percent effort into solving the terrorist activity.” Yet no sooner would he say such a thing than the State Department would blast Israel for its latest “escalation.” And on more than one occasion, the President was seduced into urging both sides to “show restraint on all fronts,” or would slip into using a phrase Powell had borrowed from Dennis Ross about the “cycle of violence.”
The implication of this phrase is that anything Israel does in responding to terrorist attacks is morally equivalent to the attacks themselves. If Sharon sends tanks or planes to threaten or re
1 I am indebted for this quotation, and (with a few exceptions) all the others from sources in Arabic that follow it below, to the Middle East Media & Research Institute (MEMRI). Fuller texts and documentation can be found through the website of this invaluable service, www.memri.org.
2 It will become clear in due course why I have put the word “occupied” in quotation marks.
3 Interestingly, in a departure from the normally formal style of the Times, she called him “Rob Malley.”
4 After his speech was broadcast on Voice of Israel Radio, al-Faluji retracted this statement, which was obviously harmful to the Palestinian line. But he and other Palestinian officials had more than once already said the same thing earlier. Here, for example, was al-Faluji himself, speaking in Gaza as early as December 2000, as reported by a correspondent for Al-Ayyam: “The PA had begun to prepare for the outbreak of the current intifada since the return from the Camp David negotiations, by request of President Yasir Arafat . . . and not as a specific protest against Sharon’s visit.”
5 The precise numbers here are in dispute. Although everyone else seems to agree that at Camp David Barak offered to turn over 91 percent of the West Bank to the new Palestinian state, and then later raised it at Taba to either 95, 96, or 97, Malley and Agha allege that “strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer” in the first place. Yet they then (less “strictly speaking”) describe “bases for negotiation” on which the Americans and Barak were in accord at Camp David: “According to those ‘bases,’ Palestine would have sovereignty over 91 percent of the West Bank. Israel would annex 9 percent of the West Bank and, in exchange, Palestine would have sovereignty over parts of pre-1967 Israel equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank, but with no indication of where either would be.” This nine-to-one estimate has been called inflated, and so has Abu Mazen’s lower estimate of the Israeli advantage as five-to-one rather than nine-to-one. In any case, as we will see, the official PLO document (while holding to the nine-to-one numbers) states that “the issue is not one of percentages.” To my ear, the Palestinian argument sounds like after-the-fact rationalization. Besides, even if it were nine-to-one, the offer would have represented a great concession by the Israelis, who had never interpreted Security Council Resolution 242 as demanding that they return to the pre-1967 borders. Nor had they ever before been willing to entertain the idea that the modifications to which they were entitled for security purposes by that resolution demanded reciprocal territorial compensation to the Palestinians.
6 Among the columnists, Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times is widely draught to have changed his mind about the peace process. But this relentlessly complacent journalist has never said that he was wrong about Arafat. So far as he is concerned, his analysis was right, and it is no fault of his that the PLO leader stupidly refused to act in accordance with it.
7 For the record, I should make it clear that Sharon authorized Peres’s efforts, and in this the Israeli prime minister did resemble Churchill, who allowed Halifax to explore the possibility of a “soft peace.” Churchill did so because he was then in a weak political position and feared that Halifax’s resignation would cause the downfall of the government. Sharon seems to have been motivated by a similar fear, compounded by his worries about American support.