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The Middle East: Snakes & Ladders

Palestinians who are close to the Palestinian delegation at Camp David deny that Barak made a pragmatic, generous offer. “What is so generous,” they ask, “in Barak’s offering us 87 percent of the West Bank, when 80 percent of the settlers are left where they are, while 100,000 Palestinians are annexed to Israel along with them? What is so generous in demanding to keep control of 20 percent of the Jordan Valley, and what is so great about Barak’s bizarre suggestion that in the Haram al-Sharif Palestinians shall have control above the ground and Israel underneath? And when you add to this Barak’s mean-spirited, patronizing, and arrogant behavior toward Arafat and the Palestinian delegation at Camp David, then you see that generosity has nothing to do with it.”

With regard to Barak’s initial bargaining position, all this may or may not be true. But even if it is true, and Barak is not the generous person his propaganda would have us believe that he is, it is irrelevant. What is relevant are Clinton’s proposals to “bridge” the differences between the two sides; and these—unlike Barak’s proposals, generous or otherwise—are all in the open. And whatever else Barak had in mind, at least we know that he said “yes” to Clinton’s proposals; a complicated yes, but a yes nevertheless. As for Arafat, his answer to Clinton’s proposals was a thirty-five-page document full of reservations. However sensible these reservations were, his answer was “no.”

What was the gist of Clinton’s proposals? A Palestinian state is to be established on some 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Eighty percent of the Israeli settlers currently living in the West Bank will be concentrated in settlements placed within the 4 to 6 percent of the land that Israel wishes to annex, on condition that these settlements do not destroy the territorial continuity of the Palestinian state.

For the territories that Israel will annex, Israel will have to compensate the Palestinian state by giving up between 1 and 3 percent of its own territory elsewhere. As for Jerusalem, neighborhoods where Arabs live will belong to the Palestinian state, and neighborhoods where Jews live will belong to Israel. This arrangement is to apply to the Old City as well. The Haram al-Sharif will be under Palestinian sovereignty, while the Wailing Wall as well as other places that are holy to the Jews will be under Israeli sovereignty. The final agreement will state clearly that it brings to an end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and that no further claims will be recognized.

What then of the problem of the more than three million Palestinian refugees, of whom more than 150,000 are in camps in Lebanon? In principle, apart from Israel paying the refugees compensation for lost lands, there are five possible, and overlapping, ways to solve the problem. The refugees can live (1) within the Palestinian state based in territories now held by the Palestinians; (2) in the territories that Israel will hand over to the Palestinian state; (3) in the Arab countries now holding the refugees; (4) in various third countries; and (5) in Israel. Palestinians worried that were they to accept Clinton’s proposals this would undermine the international legal basis for their claims on behalf of the refugees, most especially UN resolution 194 of December 1948.

Resolution 194 is an article of faith in the Palestinian system of beliefs. It says that the refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so.” Israelis have very little trust in the refugees’ willingness to live in peace with them. They believe that the refugees, especially those who have lived all these years in refugee camps, are bitter enemies of Israel and that they have raised their children on bitter hatred toward Israel.

Resolution 194 does not specify a right of return—but this is how the Palestinians understand it. The current Intifada brought the issue of the Palestinian right of return to the center of the conflict. Still, it is not just this issue that stopped the Palestinians from accepting Clinton’s proposals. The end of the conflict is in some sense the hardest thing for them to accept. It means giving up on one defining feature of Palestinian identity—that Palestinians shall never surrender the hope of putting right Israel’s injustices of the past. (This is one reason that compensation for lost lands, which Israeli officials have discussed with the Palestinians, has not been accepted as an adequate response to Palestinian claims, although in the long run compensation may still hold the best prospect for a solution.) The end of the conflict is the end of hope or at least of one great hope.


To those who know him, Barak credits himself with being a great experimenter. In the laboratory of Camp David he believes he discovered and exposed the irreconcilable Palestinian will to keep the conflict with Israel going. The left wing in Israel, Barak thinks, does not forgive him for having exposed the hollowness of their faith that there is an available partner for peace and that the partner is Arafat. He also believes that the right wing does not forgive him for having exposed the hollowness of their faith that “peace with security” can be achieved while half of the West Bank stays in Israel’s hands.

For revealing these truths, Barak believes, he was punished in the recent election: the right voted against him, along with the opportunistic Russian Jewish immigrants, and the left did not campaign for him wholeheartedly (as it did in 1999) and voted for him in reduced numbers. And this, he believes, is perhaps as it should be for someone who makes a people face the reality principle and give up the pleasure principle. Still, in the name of the reality principle I would note that Barak lost neither the right (they were against him anyway) nor the left, but the center, which had brought him to power in the first place. The center—which consists of a large part of the Labor Party, as well as the Center Party, the Shinui (Change) Party, and the Russians—cannot forgive Barak for having offered concessions and then getting not a deal but a grim war of attrition instead.

The very idea of Barak conducting an experiment is bad news. The Palestinian will is not an entity in particle physics, about which Barak could discover that it has no positive spin toward peace. The Palestinians, like the rest of the world, have many conflicting aims. They want a final agreement—they have lost hope that anything good will come from an interim agreement with Israel. But they also want to leave the conflict open-ended. They want to get the Israeli occupation off their backs as quickly as possible, fearing that the ever-expanding settlements will leave them with no land to spare. But at the same time they prolong the occupation by insisting on the refugees’ right of return, fully realizing that there is no realistic hope that Israel will agree to the return of any substantial number of them. For Barak or anyone else to set up an experiment in order to discover what is the Palestinians’ “real, true will” makes no sense. In different times they give different weights to their conflicting desires, as all of us do. And as happens to all of us in times of crisis, ideological commitments—like the right of return—have the upper hand.

I have no doubt that Barak wanted to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He was, in my view, basically generous in the content of his proposals but mean in the style in which he made them. Yet I also believe that from the time he assumed power he did almost everything that was possible, and tried some things that were impossible, to bring out the worst in the Palestinians, in whom he desperately needed to bring out the best. After the administration of Netanyahu, who resisted the Oslo accords, many Israelis expected that Barak would implement what the accords agreed on. He was expected to be attentive to the Palestinians’ urgently expressed needs, especially with regard to the prisoners who were left in Israeli jails after the agreement.

He did nothing of the sort; and he did nothing to build the minimal trust needed to get “the peace process” going. Barak failed to get in touch with the Palestinian leaders in order to find out for himself what particularly concerns them and where they stand on the details of a settlement. Instead he started out by completely ignoring those leaders, refusing to meet with Arafat and turning to negotiations with the Syrians instead. Only when the negotiations with Syria failed did he start addressing the Palestinians, almost by default.

During Barak’s year and a half in office, there were more housing starts in the settlements than during Netanyahu’s administration; this, to put it mildly, did not help to establish trust. And in my opinion, one of Barak’s worst blunders, at least for its effects on peace negotiations with the Palestinians, was his decision to order a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, under Hizbollah fire. True, Israel should not have been in Lebanon to begin with. But withdrawal under fire, without an agreement, made many Palestinians (not Arafat, however) believe that they could get rid of the Israeli occupation in much the same way, i.e., by force and without having to sign what they regard as a humiliating agreement. The unilateral withdrawal created among the Palestinians a climate of defiance rather than a mood for concessions.

Moreover, Barak alienated the Israeli Arabs, 95 percent of whom had originally voted for him. In doing so, he lost the good will of a population that in recent years has been in constant touch with their brethren in the Occupied Territories. Barak refused to do anything for them, believing that in order to persuade the Israeli Jews of the need for an agreement, he could not be perceived as an “Arab lover.” All of this ended tragically last October, when twelve Israeli Arab citizens were killed by the Israeli police during the riots that started after Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif.

As to Arafat, his turning down the Clinton “bridge” proposals may one day be judged by historians as a mistake comparable to the Palestinians’ fatal mistake in rejecting the UN partition plan of 1947. When, at Camp David and afterward, Arafat concentrated on the issues of Jerusalem and especially on total sovereignty over the Holy Sanctuary, I interpreted this as a double-edged sword. If he gained sovereignty, this would count as a tremendous symbolic victory (both national and religious) and he would be in a much stronger position to compromise on the right of return. And if he did not gain sovereignty, he could use his failure to do so to try to unite the entire Islamic world—one fifth of the human race—against Israel. He could, that is, try to turn a national conflict into a religious holy war—Israel’s real dread. Notwithstanding all the bad blood between Barak and Arafat, I believe that Barak made a serious mistake at Camp David in not compromising on sovereignty over the Temple Mount. It could have been his best chance at reaching an agreement.

As it turned out, Barak left Israel in shambles: politically, economically, and ideologically. Sharon’s national unity government consists of the two big parties: Labor and Likud. Whatever their histories, they have become ideologically indistinguishable. Even if we judge the Labor Party by its political rhetoric, one cannot honestly say that it is more moderate. Nor does either of the two parties have a coherent political agenda.

At the advanced ages of seventy-three and seventy-eight respectively, Sharon and Shimon Peres now run Israel. It is hard to tell which is the “moderate.” At some stage they may try to revive the negotiations with Syria, but at the moment they have on their hands, not politics, but a feud, however vehemently each side may deny this. It has now led to Israeli bombing of Syrian targets in Lebanon and Palestinian Authority targets in Gaza, and if it goes on, I sense that the two Israeli leaders may try to get rid of Arafat. They might warn him first by attacking his lieutenants. When five members of Arafat’s security guard were taken prisoner by Israeli forces on the West Bank at the beginning of April, this seemed to prefigure further attacks on the center of Palestinian power. Sharon and Peres may want to destroy Arafat’s regime, reasoning that better the devil you don’t know than the one you do. That is the kind of action that suggests itself when you don’t deal with politics but pursue an endless cycle of revenge.

April 18, 2000

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