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What Did Arafat and Barak Accept?

In response to:

The Confessions of Bill from the November 5, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

David Bromwich is an astute observer of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But in his review of Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes [NYR, November 5, 2009], while expressing skepticism about Branch’s (or Clinton’s) “exaggeration,” he writes—in summarizing Branch’s account—that Clinton’s December 2000 proposals for a two-state peace settlement were “accepted by Israel, rejected by Arafat.”

The Branch-Clinton account, however, is misleading, for it ignores the complexities and ambiguities. The “Clinton Plan” was only a very brief set of “ideas” or “parameters,” the key features of which were:

• The Palestinians would get 94–96 percent of the West Bank. However, what would remain in Israel’s possession included the best agricultural land and the most important aquifers.

• Jerusalem would be divided, with the Palestinians gaining sovereignty over the Arab sections of East Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount mosques; the Israelis would have sovereignty over all the Jewish areas of Jerusalem, including Judaism’s main religious sites.

• There would be no “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 conflict. Instead, they would be offered economic compensation and a right to return to the new state of Palestine or to be resettled elsewhere.

In fact, neither Yasser Arafat nor Ehud Barak of Israel definitively accepted or rejected these proposals. True, Barak wrote to Clinton “accepting” his plan—although with a long list of concerns and reservations. It is also true that Arafat’s initial written response to Clinton was generally negative, especially in his continued insistence on the right of return to Israel.

However, that was not Arafat’s final word on the Clinton proposals, for he evidently softened his position after direct talks with Clinton in early January 2001. The most detailed account is by Yossi Beilin, a member of Barak’s government and one of the lead Israeli negotiators in 2000. Beilin writes that following the talks Clinton “was prepared to interpret Arafat’s reply as ‘Yes, but’—a readiness in principle to adopt the Clinton Plan, together with a number of reservations that did not turn it on its head.”*

Conversely, Barak’s true bottom line shortly became clear, for he actually hardened the Israeli position by refusing to accept Palestinian/Muslim sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, including the crucially important mosques. Had Barak agreed to Clinton’s Jerusalem compromise, the overall evidence, from Beilin’s account and other sources, strongly suggests that Arafat would have found a way to reciprocate in practice if not in principle.

In short, Arafat was more flexible and Barak more rigid than suggested in the Branch-Clinton book. Indeed, Barak later boasted —not without reason—that he had given “not a thing” to Arafat. In the final analysis, then, the true obstacle to the implementation of the Clinton proposals, and all other similar two-state plans, was—and remains—Israel, not the Palestinians, even under Arafat.

Jerome Slater
University Research Scholar
SUNY Buffalo
Buffalo, New York

David Bromwich replies:

I am grateful for Jerome Slater’s thoughts on the Clinton Plan. To the extent that Arafat has emerged in the popular mind as an “inflexible” negotiator and Barak as his opposite, I agree the picture is false. To the extent that Bill Clinton, in later years, has helped to advance that idea, he has spoken irresponsibly. Arafat was indeed inflexible on many points, but Barak was not so courageous or consistent as is widely supposed. His subsequent airing of the slander that “Israel has no partner for peace” has played a fateful part in discrediting the very idea of negotiation.

When I wrote that the Clinton Plan was “accepted by Israel, rejected by Arafat,” I should have made it clear that I was reporting Clinton’s own retrospective view, as conveyed to Taylor Branch. But there is other testimony to support that view. In The Path to Geneva, Yossi Beilin (a reliable source, according to Slater) recalls that Clinton “was prepared to interpret Arafat’s reply as ‘Yes, but.’” But this was only at their final meeting on January 2, 2001. On the preceding page of his memoir, Beilin remarks of the approval of the Clinton Plan announced by the Barak government on December 29: “Israel was prepared to accept the proposal within the time limit Clinton had set for it. But the Palestinians were not” (p. 223). Clinton’s words to Branch would seem to refer to the disappointment of December and not the partial recovery of January.

The motives and some portion of the hidden acts of politicians—as of other people—tend to grow clearer in the light of their larger patterns of action. The death of Arafat in 2004 narrowed the evidence on which we can draw in guessing his intentions; yet it seems likely that extreme caution was dictated, on his side, by the threat to his leadership posed by the second intifada; while Barak’s susceptibility to a resolution of the question of Palestine opposed to the Clinton Plan was evident as soon as he joined the national unity government of Ariel Sharon in 2001. As for Clinton, I suspect, as I said in the review, that the charges of anti-Semitism leveled against Hillary Clinton during her Senate race in 2000 may have affected the mood in which he approached the negotiations a few months later.

  1. *

    See Yossi Beilin, The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Agreement, 1996–2004 (RDV, 2004), p. 224.

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