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Why Barak is wrong (a MUST read)

In an interview last week, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak laid the blame squarely on Yasser Arafat for the breakdown of the peace process. Here, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha counter his claims

The Camp David summit ended almost two years ago yet the various interpretations of what happened there and its aftermath continue to draw exceptional attention both in Israel and in the US. Ehud Barak’s interview with Benny Morris makes it clear why this is the case: Barak’s assessment that the talks failed because Yasser Arafat cannot make peace with Israel and that his answer to Israel’s unprecedented offer was to resort to terrorist violence has become central to the argument that Israel is in a fight for its survival against those who deny its very right to exist.

Barak’s central thesis is that the current Palestinian leadership wants “a Palestinian state in all of Palestine. What we see as self-evident, two states for two peoples, they reject”. Arafat, he concludes, seeks Israel’s “demise”.

On the question of the boundaries of the future state, the Palestinian position was for a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 borders, living alongside Israel. At Camp David, Arafat’s negotiators accepted the notion of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory to accommodate settlements, though they insisted on a one-for-one swap of land “of equal size and value.” The Palestinians argued that the annexed territory should neither affect the contiguity of their own land nor lead to the incorporation of Palestinians into Israel.

The ideas put forward by President Clinton at Camp David fell well short of those demands. In order to accommodate Israeli settlements, he proposed a deal by which Israel would annex 9% of the West Bank in exchange for turning over to the Palestinians parts of pre-1967 Israel equivalent to 1% of the West Bank. This proposal would have entailed the incorporation of tens of thousands of Palestinians into Israeli territory near the annexed settlements; and it would have meant that territory annexed by Israel would encroach deep inside the Palestinian state.

The suggestion made by some that the Camp David summit broke down over the Palestinians’ demand for a right of return simply is untrue: the issue was barely discussed between the two sides and President Clinton’s ideas mentioned it only in passing.

The Palestinians can be criticised for not having presented detailed plans at Camp David; but, as has been shown, it would be inaccurate to say they had no positions. It is also true that Barak broke a number of Israeli taboos and moved considerably from prior positions while the Palestinians believed they had made their historic concessions at Oslo, when they agreed to cede 78% of mandatory Palestine to Israel; they did not intend the negotiations to further whittle down what they already regarded as a compromise position.

Barak claims that the Palestinian position was tantamount to a denial of Israel’s right to exist and to seeking its destruction. The facts do not validate that claim. True, the Palestinians rejected the version of the two-state solution that was put to them. But it could also be said that Israel rejected the unprecedented two-state solution put to them by the Palestinians from Camp David onward, including the following provisions: a state of Israel incorporating some land captured in 1967 and including a very large majority of its settlers; the largest Jewish Jerusalem in the city’s history; preservation of Israel’s demographic balance between Jews and Arabs; security guaranteed by a US-led international presence.

The former prime minister’s remarks about other Arab leaders are misplaced. Arafat did not reach out to the people of Israel in the way President Sadat did. But unlike Sadat, he agreed to cede parts of the territory lost in 1967 – both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Barak claims that “Israel is too strong at the moment to defeat, so [the Palestinians] formally recognise it. But their game plan is to establish a Palestinian state while always leaving an opening for further ‘legitimate’ demands down the road.” Here Barak contradicts himself. For if that were the case, the logical course of action for Arafat would have been to accept Clinton’s proposals at Camp David, and even more so on December 23. He would then have had over 90% of the land and much of East Jerusalem, while awaiting, as Barak would have it, the opportunity to violate the agreement and stake a claim for more.

Barak focuses on the Palestinians’ deficiencies, and dismisses as trivial sideshows major political decisions crucial to the understanding of that failure. When he took office he chose to renegotiate the agreement on withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank, signed by Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than implement it. He delayed talks on the Palestinian track while he concentrated on Syria.

Barak’s apparent insensitivity to the way his statements might affect the other side is revealed. He characterises Palestinian refugees as “salmon” whose yearning to return to their land is somehow supposed to fade away in 80 years in a manner that the Jewish people’s never did, even after 2,000 years. When he denounces the idea that Israel should be a “state for all its citizens” he does not seem to realise that he risks alienating its many Arab citizens. Most troubling of all is his description of Arabs as people who “don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judaeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category”. It is hard to know what to make of this disparaging judgment of an entire people. In the history of this particular conflict, neither Palestinians nor Israelis have a monopoly on unkept commitments or promises.

He rejects entirely the notion that Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on September 28 2000, played any part in setting off the subsequent clashes. When we consider the context in which the visit was taking place – the intense focus on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif at Camp David and the general climate among Palestinians – its impact was predictable.

Barak suggests that Arafat had planned as his response to the Camp David summit a campaign of violent terror. That is a curious assertion in view of the fact that the Palestinians had argued that the parties were not ready for a summit and that Camp David should be understood as merely the first of a series of meetings. In contrast, as he knows well, Barak conceived of Camp David as a make-or-break-summit. He made clear early on that he foresaw only two possible outcomes: a full-scale agreement on the “framework” of a settlement, or a full-scale confrontation.

Barak’s broad endorsement of Israel’s current military campaign is cause for perhaps the greatest dismay. He appears to have given up on the current Palestinian leadership, placing his hopes in the next generation, but is there any reason to believe that today’s children will grow up any less hardened and vengeful?

The Camp David process was the victim of failings on the Palestinian side; but it was also, and importantly, the victim of failings on Israel’s (and the United States’) part. By refusing to recognise this, Barak continues to obscure the debate and elude fundamental questions about where the quest for peace ought to go now.

Ref: Guardian

· Robert Malley was a member of the Clinton team at Camp David. Hussein Agha is a senior associate member of St Anthony’s College, Oxford. This is an edited version of their response to Benny Morris’s interview with Ehud Barak. Both articles are published in the current New York Review of Books.