July/August 2000
Camp David II

Why Is Arafat Smiling?

WASHINGTON -- Three pictures on the front page of The Times told the Camp David story: Ehud Barak stunned and dismayed, Bill Clinton shattered -- and Yasir Arafat grinning broadly.

Why? Because Arafat gave up nothing. But Israel's leader, prodded by a U.S. president, made concessions that broke pledges Barak made in his election campaign a year ago.

He offered Arafat virtually all the West Bank, including the vital Jordan Valley, requiring the uprooting of 40,000 Israeli settlers. He offered what amounts to right of return of thousands of Palestinians to Israel, backed up by a reported huge commitment by Clinton to pay Palestinians around the world to not return. And most unthinkable only a year ago, he offered to share sovereignty with a new Palestinian state in portions of Jerusalem.

Not enough, smiled Arafat. He went home to the cheers of intransigent Palestinians in Gaza and the praise of Egypt's unyielding Hosni Mubarak (whose regime we have propped up with $50 billion in aid since Jimmy Carter's Camp David). Arabs are delighted at the one-way flow of concessions because they now see Jerusalem "in play."

Though Clinton absolves Barak and himself from the failure of these negotiations, his desperation for a deal in time for our November election was at the root of the fiasco. Because Barak, under pressure, gave away too much too soon, nothing was left as a deal-closer.

Palestinian statehood ceased to be an Israeli bargaining chip two years ago when Hillary Clinton, on global TV, nine times embraced a Palestinian state. The salami-slice turnover of West Bank land before final-status talks was supposed to engender trust, but it only whetted Palestinian appetites; by the time Barak reached Camp David it was common knowledge that he intended to yield nearly all the land Arafat claimed.

With statehood and all the land already in his pocket; with heavy money from America promised for himself and for Palestinians abroad; and with the Israelis and Americans tacitly winking at his 40,000 armed troops as a "police force," what incentive did Arafat have to drop his demands for Jerusalem as his capital?

In his eyes, no incentive at all. On the contrary, he had every reason to hang tough and await more concessions. What many of us long thought to be in the cards -- a Palestinian capital in a village that was a Jerusalem suburb, which Palestinians were free to call Jerusalem -- was now a compromise the supremely confident Arafat could dismiss. Mubarak, the Saudis and his own militant followers could sense the momentum going his way.

At that point, Barak realized he was conceding too much for Israeli voters to bear.

Certainly he would lose a referendum that called for Israel's loss of control of its capital. So as the summit broke up he labeled all his concessions "invalid."

But to Arafat, they are valid forever. Once laid on the table, they cannot so easily be snatched back. Just as Syria's Hafez al-Assad demanded that tentative Israeli concessions be the starting point of renewed negotiations, Arafat will insist on the same. Thus has Clinton's unwise summit gamble raised unreasonable Arab expectations, and has moved the center of gravity of an ultimate settlement away from Israel's security interests.

You have to sympathize with Barak, a good man learning diplomacy the hardest way. Through Clinton, he offered Assad all the Golan Heights, only to be rebuffed. He offered Arafat virtually all the West Bank, and was scorned again. Land for peace? The land Arab leaders want is the land of Israel.

Barak returned home as Arik Sharon, leader of the opposition Likud, called for early elections. "I do not foresee a possibility for a unity government," Sharon tells me, "because we will never accept the partition of Jerusalem. I'm running." If a trumped-up case against Bibi Netanyahu is dropped, that Comeback Kid will compete for the nomination. Natan Sharansky will be an election factor.

A nonpolitical old friend in Israel's still-undivided capital (where the U.S. Embassy ought to be relocated now) says: "The summit's only benefit to Israel was that it made clear to the world who wants peace and who does not."

In time, an Israeli unburdened with Barak's concessions will find a Palestinian interlocutor who wants peace too.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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