THE ISRAEL REPORTJuly/August 2000
DisabusedBy THE EDITORS - The New Republic
Issue date: 08.07.00
No sooner had Ehud Barak, Yasir Arafat, and Bill Clinton left Camp David, and gone their separate ways into the Maryland rain, than the air began to fill with reassurances. This was not the end of the peace process, it was the beginning of the peace process; it was a momentous achievement to have made the forbidden subjects of Middle Eastern diplomacy no longer forbidden; the end of days was just another summit away. But the rain was right: it was a grim day. The outcome of the summit at Camp David was crushing. And what happened in the Catoctin Mountains was rather simple. For the second time in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinians refused to accept a Palestinian state.
The magnitude of the failure at Camp David must be measured historically. In 1947, when the United Nations proposed partitioning the tormented land into two states, a smaller state called Israel and a larger state called Palestine, the Palestinians refused the offer, and waited for the armies of their Arab brethren to destroy the Jewish state and deliver to them the whole of the territory. They waited in vain. The Zionists accepted the offer, and created their state, and secured it; the Palestinians fled or were driven out of many of their villages, and they drifted into dependency, and sullenness, and terror. In 1967, when their Arab brethren failed again to do away with the Jewish state, the Palestinians watched helplessly as Israel's forward defense brought Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under Israeli sovereignty. But the Israelis did not annex the territories, for practical reasons and for reasons of conscience. In the decades of occupation, the futility of the occupation became more and more evident to more and more Israelis. They wanted a normal life, not an imperial life. In 1978, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat invited Yasir Arafat to join them in their peace. Arafat refused. In 1993, he shook Yitzhak Rabin's hand and agreed to live with Israel, in return for which the way to a Palestinian state was made ready. The PLO became the Palestine Authority, and Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza was begun. In 2000, Ehud Barak agreed that the time for "final status" had finally arrived, that there was no point in deferring the two-state solution to the conflict any longer. He agreed to the creation of Palestine, and in return he wanted a clear Palestinian declaration that the conflict was over. Arafat refused.
The particulars of the deal that fell apart on July 25 are still shrouded in secrecy; but here are the central points of the deal that the United States proposed before Clinton left for a few days of brandy and cigars on Okinawa, as they were reported in Ha'aretz on July 21:
When the Americans made this "bridge proposal," Barak agreed to it. In doing so, he exceeded his political mandate for compromise (his plan amounted virtually to a withdrawal to the 1967 borders), and he scandalized a significant number of Israelis back home. Away from home, the prime minister seems to have confused the spirit of Rabin with the spirit of Peres, though he was elected because he insisted upon the distinction. But Arafat, in a voice of rejectionism that was supposed to have disappeared into the mists of time, said no. And when Clinton returned to Camp David, Arafat again said no.
The reason was Jerusalem. Arafat explained to the crestfallen American president, and to the sympathetic American diplomats whom he embarrassed with his intransigence, that he could not concede Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. If the city is not divided, he said, then Palestine can wait. According to one report, Arafat told Clinton that he speaks on behalf of a billion Muslims. It also transpired that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (in the words of The New York Times' reporter in Cairo) "all but threatened Mr. Arafat with political excommunication if he accepted Prime Minister Ehud Barak's proposals" on Jerusalem.
The prospect of dividing Jerusalem really is intolerable, and this, too, is a lesson of history. For the city was divided--as a consequence of Arab aggression--for almost two decades, between 1949 and 1967, and in those years it was a very unpleasant place. Arab snipers fired on Israelis in the streets. Jews were denied access to their sacred sites, many of which were systematically desecrated. It was not until the city was unified under Israeli rule that religious pluralism became a reality. Anyway, there is no such thing as partial sovereignty. Sovereignty is a big, coarse, strong dispensation, which is why it makes some people feel safe and other people feel unsafe.
It takes a certain temerity, moreover, to insist that a city is your third-holiest place when it is your interlocutor's first-holiest place. But the really important point, the point upon which the sweet reason of the Oslo process has been shipwrecked, is that the Palestinian leadership has chosen symbols and sentiments over the welfare of the Palestinian people. Israeli doves, who now include the prime minister of Israel, were betting on the opposite choice, the compassionate choice, the moral choice--the choice that the Zionist leadership made in 1947, when it accepted a state that excluded Jerusalem from Jewish sovereignty. If I forget thee, o Jerusalem, the Psalmist sang, may my right hand lose its cunning; but the founders of the Jewish state were prepared to forget, at least politically. Their reason was clear: there were thousands of Jews in refugee camps, and this misery they would not countenance. Indeed, it was precisely because they chose collective rescue over collective memory that their right hand found its cunning, and the harsh, anomalous existence of the Jews was brilliantly transformed. It is this link between compromise and justice that is tragically and tiresomely missing from Palestinian politics.
Moreover, Ehud Barak did not travel to Camp David to negotiate with a billion Muslims. He went there to negotiate with the Palestinian people, who are the only people in the world who share a claim upon the land. Does Arafat understand the damage that he does to the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation when he presents himself as the representative of the Islamic world? If that is so, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict; it is a cultural conflict, even a religious conflict. And if that is so, then Israeli magnanimity is foolish, and founded on an illusion, and all that remains for Israel is to ready itself, militarily and psychologically, for war without end. But here is Arafat, hailed as a hero throughout the Arab world for standing up to Israel and the United States on theological grounds. And there are his people, going nowhere fast. Arafat is also said to have complained to Clinton that he would be assassinated if he budged on Jerusalem; so perhaps the obstacle was not only his theology, but also his cowardice.
Barak, by contrast, is fearless. And his consecration to the cause of peace was plain for all the world to see, and preempted the blame game--more precisely, the recrimination against Israel--that usually follows such fiascoes. But Barak's impatience with incrementalism, and his decision to wager everything on a single summit, may have been a monumental mistake. Military efficiency has no place in politics, which is what incrementalists from Begin to Rabin understood. Barak's gamble has gained his country only anger and disillusion. Moreover, his generosity at Camp David has set a standard for Israeli diplomacy at any future negotiation, unless Barak says otherwise; but then he will owe his people a larger explanation. Indeed, Camp David was not the first instance of Barak's historical impulsiveness. His desperate desire to find a way to return the Golan Heights to Syria defied a powerful and proper Israeli consensus that little was to be gained and much was to be lost from such a deal. It may also have encouraged the Palestinians in their foolish belief that here was an Israeli government that would provide complete satisfaction. For Arafat did not come to Camp David to negotiate, he came to receive.
And now? A reckoning with some of the premises of the peace process, perhaps. Violence, perhaps. Sobriety, for sure; and in Israel, political confusion. There remains the decency of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who coexist with each other all the time, summits or no summits. And it is always good to be disabused.
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